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Senior Meals Program Doing Well
The senior meals program offered at the Riverbank Community Center three times a week remains popular and is drawing almost double the numbers it had a year ago, a recent visit revealed.

Average attendance used to be 14 or 15 last year, said the current site manager Marci Kraft. This year it has been about 25 and on Tuesday of this past week reached 33.

"Two ladies were here for Tai Chi classes that morning and decided to stay on for lunch. It's always nice to see the group growing," she said.

Although Thursday this past week was a wet, cold day and apparently discouraged several regulars, so attendance was down to a dozen.

The lunches, designed for senior citizens' needs are prepared at the Howard Training Center in Modesto and delivered by van to Riverbank among 12 other sites ranging from Turlock to Oakdale and Patterson through a contract between Stanislaus County authorities and the training center for the disabled. The center took over food preparation and delivery in 2006 in succession to the Salvation Army, which used to serve the meals at the Fire Station's community hall (only for a few months) and before that at the Masonic Hall.

The food service is basically financed by a federal grant but encourages a $2 donation from participants who can afford it and holds fundraisers such as crab feeds, said Kraft.

Kraft is a training center employee and said she is filling in until the center can find a volunteer to be Riverbank's site manager, who would still need help from volunteers such as current helper Marian Bennett. She complimented the White family, especially Jesse James White, with keeping the Riverbank operation going a couple of years ago.

While it now seems well housed at the community center, it has never been able to expand to serving the seniors five days a week.

Kraft said some seniors tell her they would like it to operate every day. Others say they are satisfied to spend Fridays at home or find other solutions for lunch that day. Wednesday meals would be impossible because the Golden Agers use the center for dancing from 10 a.m. until 1 p.m.

The menus are carefully balanced by dieticians to suit seniors and contain the essential vitamins, she said. Sometimes dietary experts from the University of Berkeley visit to talk to the seniors about the importance of good nutrition, the variety of ways to prepare vegetables and the need to cut down sugar intake from soft drinks.

Among the seniors interviewed, Josephine Gilpin, 72, said she had been coming there longer than most of the others. Her daughter Bennett is her caretaker and also volunteers to help serve and clean up.

"Jesse (James White), he and his family had the place going fine for a couple of years," she said. "For Christmas, he gave every one of us a blanket and a box of candy. We had potlucks too. It used to be fun.

"The food's good," she added. "But I'm not eating what they are serving today. They call it chicken pot pie. It has chicken and carrots and peas in it. But there's no crust."

Abel Diaz said he comes for the excellent meals, He's generally accompanied by his wife, but she stayed away that day because she was sick.

"It's a good idea, coming down here, to talk to each other. It's not good for people to stay cooped up at home," said Helen Conway, who enjoys the socializing besides the food.

Conway is a former teacher who taught at Cardozo School for many, many years.

"I came to Riverbank in 1937, or maybe it was 1940, from the borders of Oklahoma and Arkansas, real Grapes of Wrath stuff and have been here ever since. My hometown was so small it had only two stores, grocery stores combined with a barber's shop. They were located at opposite ends of town."

A woman, conspicuous for her purple sweater and matching hat, turned out to be Virginia Hess, 89, who retired at 76 from her lifelong job as a waitress. She last worked, for 12 years, at the former Brawley's Restaurant whose owners also operated a recreational vehicle sales business.

"I crocheted it myself," she said of her hat. "I have about 200 of them at home. That's what I do for a hobby. Be careful to have a hobby before you give up work. My friend Aloise Ramos and I come down here three times a week, just to visit, to talk and gossip. I wish they had some cookies to go with the coffee here."

Kraft had commented earlier she's always trying to get some cookies or pastries donated for the seniors to snack on as they socialize before the meal. Save Mart, she noted, is well known for donating spare donuts to groups like the senior citizen nutrition program. She's heard they give to Ralston Towers in Modesto among other places.

Raymond Espinoza, 77, has lived in Riverbank for 45 years and used to work for the city's Public Works Department.

"I remember setting up tables for the food distributions here," said. "I never thought I would someday be standing in line here to get food for myself."

Espinoza was sporting a colorful forage cap which looked at first sight like a military veteran's cap but turned out to be given him by his grandson who serves in the Navy as a medical corpsman. Espinoza's brother, now 89 and living in Texas, served in the Army in World War II.

"I'm a good cook. I cook for myself," he said when asked what he does about lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays. "But it's nice to have someone cook for you."