Sharing a hot meal with friends is about much more than just the food. It’s also about fellowship.
Crystal Hallwood knows that firsthand since she’s been the Lead Nutrition Coordinator at REAL Services for 15 years.
REAL Services offers many invaluable services to the greater Michiana community, including nutrition sites that provide hot meals to people 60 years of age and older throughout St. Joseph, Elkhart, Kosciusko, La Porte, and Elkhart counties.
The meals are donation-based and require reservations. People can make a reservation with their site director the day before they want to come to eat, or they can even make a reservation for the entire month.
The sites are about much more than just food security, Hallwood says. They provide a place to be social, learn a bit about health education, play a card game with friends, or volunteer.
At the sites, everyone usually eats as a group at about 11:30 a.m., Hallwood says, but people are welcome to come as soon as the doors open at 10 a.m. to have a cup of coffee or just to chat with one another.
Earlier in the pandemic, the sites had to transition into serving grab-and-go meals, Hallwood says. But as the pandemic has progressed and vaccines have become available, the sites slowly returned back to their typical environment.
“We are having hot meals together again, which my seniors were thrilled about because the isolation was very, very hard on them,” Hallwood says. “So, we’re happy to be back serving hot meals and having people gather again.”
A staple in the community
The nutrition sites have been a staple in the community, going all the way back to when they were being tested out in 1968 in South Bend, Hallwood says. As funding became more secure through various grants, the nutrition sites were able to spread out into the five counties by around 1973. They’ve been active in the community ever since.
The program differs from the well-known program Meals on Wheels, which delivers meals to people who are home-bound, Hallwood says.
“My program is to create a sense of community, a sense of fellowship, to provide an opportunity to socialize and have a hot meal,” Hallwood says.
Anywhere between 600 and 900 people are served each day across the 29 sites. Seniors get anything from spaghetti, meatloaf, taco salad, hamburgers, to sloppy joes and oven-roasted chicken and beyond.
Hallwood says she and site directors work with the state to create the menus to make sure they’re meeting nutritional needs, but they don’t follow a specific diet. The program is geared toward preventing hunger and making sure the seniors in the community are getting enough food.
“Some of our seniors don’t have the luxury of having three meals a day,” Hallwood says. “So, our big hot meal in the middle of the day is super beneficial from a nutrition standpoint, from the social standpoint, and it also helps reduce grocery bills.”
Hallwood says one of the biggest problems she faces is people thinking they either can’t afford the meals or people thinking the sites are soup kitchens. She says the sites are a lunch program for the community, and people can donate whatever feels comfortable.
“You’re grownups, so you also don’t have to clean your plate. We will let you have your dessert even if you did not eat your spinach,” Hallwood says with a laugh. “It’s an awesome opportunity for people to be food secure, but also to connect with their neighbor.”
More than a meal
Hallwood says food security is a big deal, but so is socialization. And each site is different in what that could look like.
Hallwood knows that Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are popular at the Battell Community Center since the seniors come to lunch after participating in an exercise program. She knows which sites are known for always having a game of dominoes going when you walk through the door and which prefer getting deep into a game of euchre.
What they all have in common is a diverse crowd — those from age 60 to 99 and everything in between — where it’s the norm to play games, share conversation, and volunteer. Several seniors themselves like to help out by washing dishes, serving food, sanitizing the area, or taking out the trash.
“We have an amazing group of seniors that we serve and an amazing group of people who step up and help make sure that their neighbors and their friends are getting fed,” Hallwood says. “The whole spirit of volunteering is enriching on a personal level. It gives people purpose. It gives people direction. It gives them a reason to get up in the morning.”
The sites also provide health education a few times a month. It can be something as simple as a handout with a reminder of what the signs of a stroke look like or a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detector.
Interested in helping?
Hallwood says her favorite part of overseeing this program is serving the people.
“I joke all the time that I’ve made a career out of bingo and lunch,” she says. “I’ve been doing this for 15 years now and I know these people. I know their faces. I know how grateful they are for the program. I know how connected they are to the people that they have lunch with. And I’m just really grateful to get to be a part of that.”
For more information about REAL Services and the nutrition sites, visit REAL Services website or reach out to Hallwood. On the website, you can view the nutrition sites, find the phone numbers for the sites, and take a look at the menu.