I've gotten many calls asking what is meant by the term "congregate meals," so let me start this off by defining it as simply "meals served in a dining hall or cafeteria-style setting."
Generally speaking, and it certainly is the case in our agency, congregate meals are served to people who have undergone an application process to receive the meal served that day. Soup kitchens serve meals to anyone who shows up and is in need of a meal, with no application necessary.
We order our meals from an outside catering company, which are then delivered to each meal site for serving both as congregate meals and as hot meals delivered to our homebound seniors. That's why we have to have an application process for both meal options, so we can order as many meals as will be served that day. Our meals also provide at least one-third of the required daily allowance of nutrition to our senior participants.
So, let's get to the why of why we serve congregate meals!
1. Serving congregate meals lets our seniors have social interaction. Many seniors lose social connections that they have built up in their younger years, but congregate meals allow them to make new friends and acquaintances! These friendships can also keep depression and anxiety at bay in seniors, who tend to be more isolated than younger people.
2. The signs of elder abuse can be hard to pinpoint. We have regular interactions with our seniors, and can keep an eye on them. Many of our seniors don't have regular contact with their younger loved ones, who may live across the county or across the nation, so we're better able to keep an eye on them.
3. Many seniors, especially low income seniors, will intentionally "forget" to eat regularly, believing that they will need that money to pay for their medicines, rent, utilities, or any other large bill. We can refer our seniors to outside sources that can help with those bills.
4. Related to point number 3 above, many times the meal provided in our meal sites is the ONLY meal that our seniors will eat that day. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration on Aging has found that of participants in congregate meals, 58% say that their one meal provides half or more of their total food intake for that day. See this PDF for more information about how congregate meal and home delivered meal programs meet older Americans' needs.
5. What better way to see the impact of your volunteering, if you're a volunteer, than by serving hot meals? Just look at the smiles on the faces of those you're serving, and you're more than likely to come back, just because you know you're making a difference.