Maureen Shearer nibbled on her teriyaki meatballs with rice at the Washington Senior Center and looked over to find that her husband, Brad, had already cleaned his plate.
“The food’s very good,” Brad said with a laugh.
The Washington couple was enjoying lunch Wednesday, less than a month after a new food provider began preparing meals at nine of Washington County’s 14 senior centers.
“It’s very similar,” Maureen said, “and I think it’s good.”
Others were still unsure about the food offerings and said they still wanted to taste some of the new meals that will be served after Metz Culinary of Dallas, Pa., won the contract from the Area Agency on Aging to provide hot lunches and grab-and-go meals at the senior centers in central and western Washington County. It’s been a transition that has been met with various feedback from seniors, but most said they’ve been happy with the changes as officials are open to suggestions.
“We’re working very hard to make sure the meals are pleasing to the seniors, because those meal programs are very important to seniors who have food scarcity,” said Mary Lynn Spilak, the director of Aging Services, which operates the centers and manages the volunteers.
Up until last month, the Area Agency on Aging provided food through a separate contract and the county employed the cooks who prepared the meals at the nine centers. That changed when the county commissioners wanted to go in a different direction by finding a new vendor to provide the meals that offered more homemade food with fresh produce.
Metz was recently awarded the five-year contract from Area Agency on Aging that could pay the company $1 million per year, depending on the number of meals provided. But most importantly, the eight full-time and 10 part-time cooks previously employed by the county were offered similar positions at Metz, with most of them agreeing to the job offers.
“We were very interested in keeping the same model with an on-site preparation model,” said Leslie Grenfell, director of the Area Agency on Aging. “We’re hoping this new change will be a success. From all indications, we’re moving in the right direction.”
Keeping many of the same cooks in the kitchen was important to Metz, according to Ken Crisafio, the company’s director of operations and business development.
“They want to cook more and make more homemade food from scratch,” Crisafio said. “They’re good people. They’ve done a good job for a long time.”
He said Metz is focusing on offering fresh produce and locally sourced food to the senior centers, which might be a change from previous meals that were served to regulars.
“We’re pretty excited about it, actually,” Crisafio said. “There’s been some growing pains. Nothing new or unexpected. But the majority has been positive and well-received.”
Grenfell acknowledged there have been some comments and complaints, but overall people have been open to try the new meals.
“It’s always difficult when there’s change,” Grenfell said. “So we anticipated there would be some (complaints).”
With the food preparation outsourced, county Human Services Director Kim Rogers said the county’s Aging Services department can now dedicate more time focusing on new programs and events for the seniors to enjoy around their meals.
“We felt like we could use our resources more wisely and potentially improve the meals,” Rogers said of the change. “We don’t have to operate the kitchens anymore. We can focus on the programs and running the senior centers. ... “We think it’s the best transition we could’ve done.”
The five senior centers in the Mon Valley will continue with the same menu as before since they’re part of a different structure with Area Agency on Aging.