By Michael Bromka
Back in the day, Luciana Hernandez was well known as a cook. She had a big family and always cooked for a crowd. Her granddaughter Victoria Olivas began likewise as a girl in Luciana's kitchen. Nothing says Love so well as food prepared with care.
On weekdays, Victoria and right-hand women now prepare multitudinous meals. They work at San Jose Senior Center (2814 San Jose Blvd). Shuttered to the public for four months, the Center nonetheless feeds about 400 seniors each weekday.
"With five routes in Carlsbad plus one in Loving, we deliver to almost 240 at-home elders each weekday," says Robert Echavarría, director of the meal site. "An additional 165 seniors who drive come by for grab-&-go." There's a suggested fee of $2, which most grab-&-go folks and many at-home elders pay.
"Nobody gets turned away hungry for lack of money. We make sure our elders eat at least one hearty healthy meal per day."
Before Coronavirus shut the Center, they had about 90 elders dining-in daily. The additional 75 current grab-&-go elders perhaps began seeking a hot meal when restaurants closed.
"Two dollars? Elsewhere that won't buy soda pop," says Robert. "We price to serve seniors on fixed incomes."
Anyone over age sixty is eligible. This reporter paid $2 to enjoy a generous slab of ham, green beans, sweet potato, small carton of milk, and piece of cake. Some days include salad and bread or crackers, depending on the meal.
"We have menus and recipes pre-approved by a Certified Dietician to ensure a well-balanced meal."
The meal site and its activities constitute one program overseen by the Southeast New Mexico Community Action Corporation (SNMCAC) headed up by Belinda López in the Head Start complex at 1915 San Jose Blvd. Her assistant D.D. Janway selects menus.
Funding for meals and wages comes from an array of sources. U.S. federal and NM state funds plus City of Carlsbad, United Way, Carlsbad Community Foundation, Chevron Catalyst, Mosaic Potash, and American Legion provide much support. The City of Carlsbad owns and maintains the Senior Center.
I n order to qualify for greatly reduced rent, SNMCAC recruits and wrangles much-appreciated volunteers.
As a stopgap grant when Coronavirus arrived, Chevron donated gas cards to help fuel the five vans delivering lunch to at-home elders, as well as fueling volunteer transport.
Chief cook Victoria and assistant Sadie Chavez begin prep at 6 a.m., and are later joined by Susana Rodriguez -- who thereafter also drives a van. By 9:30
a.m. they begin apportioning lunches in sturdy plastic trays with tight-sealing cellophane tops. These they stack into insulated bins for delivery while hot. Other bins carry dessert and beverage.
To assemble and maintain a delivery list, Senior Service Specialist Rose Anne Martinez has spoken in the past to each elder applicant over the phone to determine eligibility. An array of questions ascertains need. An additional surplus of daily sealed meals are also delivered frozen to clientele for evening and weekend meals.
"Some elders have no family and do very limited cooking at home," says Robert. "We serve those needs and look to high risk clients first."
Prior to Coronavirus shutdown, vans and drivers were tasked with bringing seniors to and from the Center for daily activities and lunch. Robert worries how folks at home are coping socially.
"For some, this Center has been family. Now each driver might be an elder's only familiar face-to-face encounter of the day."
At times the five drivers' delivery routes run on late. Just thirty lunches on a route plus two minutes chatter can add an hour. The hot-meal imperative enforces brief drop-offs.
"Often a driver will say -- 'I wanted to dawdle and speak with Mrs. So-&-so. But twenty more elders are hungry for a meal that's still hot.'"
Robert frets about elder isolation. "Myself, I drive here and there as I please. But recently just missing the chance to eat out or take in a movie made me feel cooped up. What's it like to have no wheels, while your only community gathering spot is shuttered?
"For sure, folks are fed up with being stuck at home. But slowly, cautiously -- is it safe yet to open? What's slow and cautious when a normal day open packs ninety lively folks together at tables? What if we were to open up and then have contagion shut us back down? I'll be glad when it's over and back to normal. Whatever normal is."
Of chief cook Victoria, Robert boasts -- "I've seen her make twenty dozen tortillas in ten minutes. Faster than a machine!" Victoria's been at San Jose Senior Meal Site just two years. "For sixteen years prior I cooked for little toddlers at Head Start. I love both groups. Elderlies will say what they think of a meal. When you listen, you learn a lot."
We discuss the year's biggest and most well attended meal -- pre-Thanksgiving dinner, with up to 130 eager eaters. Opinions vary on whether it's better (by table lottery) to be served last or first. Once everyone's been served their firsts, folks are welcome to seek seconds. Some people back in the pack grumble about their wait.
"Every year we time the full serving of firsts. It's never longer than fifteen minutes," says Robert. But aroma inspires impatience, making the wait seem to drag.
The end of their workday approaches for Victoria and Sadie. At home, Victoria will prepare Mexican supper for a family of five. There, she'll include the same secret ingredient that keeps her bigger family of seniors here happy.
"It all comes out better with a little bit of love."