Aiming to provide meals to seniors in isolation because of COVID-19, San Mateo County has extended contracts with restaurants participating in the Great Plates program until the end of March, contingent on federal and state approval to continue funding the program. 

“This program has truly been a lifesaver for many and we are just so grateful that our county would want to continue this program,” said Lisa Mancini, the director of Aging and Adult Services which manages the program locally. 

The Great Plates program, launched by Gov. Gavin Newsom in early April, contracts local restaurants to prepare and deliver three meals a day, six days a week to seniors ages 65 years and older unable to obtain or make meals on their own. The program is typically approved in 30-day increments, said Mancini, often resulting in the department receiving notice it’s been continued within a day of expiration. 

After being extended Monday, the program is set to expire Feb. 6 unless state and federal officials opt to prolong it another month. If not, the county intends to provide a “soft landing” for participating businesses and seniors by covering costs until the end of the month.

The more than $35 million agreement, approved by the Board of Supervisors through the consent calendar Tuesday, will cover 46 contracts until March 31 unless the Federal Emergency Management Agency decides to end the program earlier. FEMA is predominantly funding the program, covering 75% of costs with the state contributing 18.75%. While the county is responsible for fronting program funding, after being reimbursed it will only cover 6.25% of the total cost.

Tuesday’s resolution also does not account for an additional 24 restaurants participating in the program, noted Mancini. To date, 3,607 seniors have participated in the program with 2,980 still actively receiving meals, putting more than $28 million back into the local economy. More than 2.3 million meals are projected to be distributed to participating county residents if extended through the 2020-21 fiscal year, ending June 30. 

Noting how expensive the program is to run, County Manager Mike Callagy said it’s unlikely the county could independently fund the program until March 31 if outside funding ends on Feb. 6, calling it cost prohibitive.  

“We’re committed to a soft landing but we couldn’t carry it for two months,” said Callagy. “Our hope would be that this would continue through the pandemic.” 

Having routinely noted the county is home to one of the fastest aging populations in the state, Callagy said the pandemic has revealed an unseen community of seniors living alone and in need of monetary and food support. While the program has pacified both elderly health concerns and restaurant revenue shortfalls, once businesses are permitted to reopen only one problem would have been alleviated, he added. 

“Once we’re back to opening restaurants to where they were, they won’t need assistance to continue but that leaves a void to people who need the food assistance and we’ll need to evaluate that,” said Callagy. 

Similarly, Mancini said her department has begun assessing the future needs of program participants through a survey. With 60% having responded, she said staff is still assessing what aid will be offered after Great Plates expires. 

Meanwhile, participating merchants have shown appreciation for the program, including Ronnie Taylor, chef and co-owner of participating companies IVSF Catering and SSF Chickenbox. As one of the first 30 vendors to apply and be granted a program contract, Taylor said Great Plates has been vital in keeping his businesses operating. 

“Honestly, if we didn’t have the Great Plates program, we wouldn’t have folded but we would have had to postpone it,” said Taylor. “It’s a blessing in disguise. No one wants to be alone but it does give us the chance to give seniors healthy nutritious meals.” 

Responsible for preparing 300 meals to serve 100 seniors daily, Taylor said he and his partners could reinvent the businesses if funding for the program ends but they remain interested in supporting the community. His delivery drivers, he added, are often the only people with whom many isolated elders come into contact. 

“The biggest thing right now with pandemic is just to help others,” said Taylor. “It’s a depressing time but at the same time we want to reassure the community that there are people out there who care.” 

For more information about the Great Plates program visit smchealth.org/post/great-plates-delivered-faqs or call (800) 675-8437 for the Aging and Adult Services hotline. 

(650) 344-5200 ext. 106

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