Seniors -- County awards Forest Grove program to Loaves and Fishes

The lunch program at the Forest Grove Senior Center changed hands this week, but officials responsible for serving the people who rely on the free meals said they will do their best to make the transition as easy as possible.

'We want the least disruption for seniors and volunteers,' said Joan Smith, executive director of Loaves and Fishes, a Portland-based nonprofit group.

Last Tuesday, the Washington County Board of Commissioners voted to award Loaves and Fishes more than $650,000 to provide nutrition services to senior citizens throughout the county.

Previously, the Forest Grove Senior Center, also a nonprofit, served more than 22,000 lunches and home-delivered meals in western Washington County. Loaves and Fishes, meanwhile, operated the food programs at senior centers in Tigard, Beaverton, and Tualatin-Durham. With last week's decision, it will expand throughout the county to North Plains, Banks, Sherwood, and other communities.

Smith said Loaves and Fishes plans to supplement the nutrition funds - provided by the federal Older Americans Act and distributed by the county - with fundraising dollars, bringing the organization's total Washington County budget to about $1.3 million.

When Washington County staff and a citizen evaluation committee initially recommended the entire county contract be awarded to Loaves and Fishes in August, the Forest Grove Senior Center filed a formal protest.

However, it soon withdrew the protest and now the two organizations have reached a cooperative agreement in which they will share utility bills and other expenses. Loaves and Fishes will prepare a free sit-down lunch and deliver meals from the center's kitchen Monday through Friday

The cook who currently works for the center will be hired part-time by Loaves and Fishes, and will continue making breakfasts for the senior center on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. The breakfast service will be funded with donation money.

'Through our partnership, we may end up saving costs overall,' said Smith.

According to a press release issued by Washington County, Loaves and Fishes scored higher than the Forest Grove Senior Center and other senior facilities evaluated by the county based on such criteria as organizational capacity, strategies for the future, cultural competence, as well as the logistics of food preparation, delivery, and cleanup, among others.

The county was also attracted by the organization's plans to increase the number of meal sites and the range of the Meals on Wheels program, said Rod Branyan, division manager for the county's Health and Human Services Department. 'Under that proposal, more seniors would be served in the county, with better geographical coverage for the senior meals program.'

The move, however, comes at a cost to the Forest Grove Senior Center. Its revenues will be reduced by one-fourth as a result of the county's deal with Loaves and Fishes: $60,000 due to the loss of the contract, and another $40,000 in lost donations, said Lucy Warren, executive director of the Forest Grove Senior Center.

Because the senior center and the food program have been closely associated in the public's mind for more than 20 years, the resulting decrease in charitable contributions will be a major strain on its budget, Warren said.

'Our ability to raise funds is the biggest negative impact,' she said, explaining that potential donors may be confused by the senior center's role now that Loaves and Fishes will be conducting the food service. 'The biggest issue is separating our identities… The lines tend to get blurred.'

The center will now emphasize other ways it's involved in the senior community, such as its Senior Guardianship Assistance Program and its referral service, which links seniors with assisted living facilities and social programs, Warren said. 'Our goal has been always to connect people with resources.'

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