It used to be that if seniors wanted to take advantage of free or low-cost meals subsidized by Erie County, they had to eat at their local senior center or community center.
Roughly half a dozen restaurants and restaurant incubators such as the West Side Bazaar will serve the meals thanks to a two-year, $250,000 grant. The idea is to encourage more seniors to eat out more often, especially the younger seniors and Baby Boomers.
Rep. Brian Higgins also announced the West Side Bazaar will benefit from a $375,000 federal grant. The money will pay for the bazaar to expand into new space roughly three times as big as its current space. Westminster Economic Development Initiative, which operates the bazaar, is expected to identify and secure a new location by the end of the year.
The bazaar would move from its current 3,200-square feet Grant Street site to a larger site on the West Side with 8,000 or more square feet. The move would allow for expanded kitchen and storage space, larger eating areas and a training kitchen, said WEDI Executive Director Ben Bissell. It would also accommodate more food and retail vendors.
"We're very excited to take this local asset and allow it to be more of a regional asset," Bissell said.
The $250,000 federal grant for senior dining will allow eligible older adults the option of dining out at a participating food establishment, choosing from breakfast, lunch or dinner. They will be able to dine with whomever they choose. All restaurants participating in the pilot program must offer menus that meet federal nutrition requirements for older adults.
"Why does this matter?" asked County Executive Mark Poloncarz. "Because sometimes, this is the only hot meal that a senior will have on any day."
So far, the county is planning to partner with Gigi's Restaurant, which is slated to reopen in the Northland Workforce Training Center this November; Peg's Place in Hamburg; Cozy Corner in Springville; and the West Side Bazaar. The program should be up and running by January, county officials said. The county hopes to add more restaurants in coming weeks.
The senior dining program is offered to all seniors ages 60 and over. Those who participate in the group dining program are not charged for their meals but are encouraged to leave a $3 donation. The county also offers a meal delivery program.
The move toward offering subsidized senior meals at regular restaurants started in 2016. That's when aging LGBT seniors – faced with the awkward alternative of eating at senior centers with heterosexual seniors talking about their grandchildren – began patronizing Preservation Pub on Main Street once a month. The program became the first restaurant-based senior dining program offered by the county.
Now, the same model will be tried on a larger scale. Unlike the existing senior dining program, which is typically limited to noontime lunches with one set menu at senior centers, the new model allows seniors to eat meals at any time of day, with menus that can be tailored to each restaurant's specialty.
The county's Department of Senior Services is still working out the logistics on how the restaurant program will work when it begins in January. More information will eventually be available on the county website. Anyone 60 or older can participate in the program, regardless of income, but must register with the Department of Senior Services.
Other restaurant owners interested in participating in the program should contact the department at 858-6046.
Darryl Harvin, who owns Gigi's, said that by expanding the county's subsidized senior meal program, older adults with limited incomes can more fully participate in the region's independent restaurant renaissance, including those featuring cuisine from other cultures.
Zelalem Gemmeda, who operates the Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia at the West Side Bazaar, said the food offered there may be more familiar to some seniors than the typical American fare offered at senior centers.
"We are excited to be able to help seniors in our community find familiar, healthy food, hear familiar languages and make new friends," she said.
She also said she looks forward to the expansion of the West Side Bazaar, noting that the place was full shortly after the noontime press conference, with Poloncarz and other officials either pulling up a seat or grabbing food to go. With a table shortage and the tight squeeze in the kitchen, a bigger location would be welcome, she said.
Senior Services Commissioner Timothy Hogues said he hopes the new senior restaurant dining program will help his department connect with younger seniors who might feel isolated but don't necessarily feel any connection to a senior center.
"If this is successful, we look to expand this," he said.