Ramon Quiroga, Binx Selby and Sylvia Benedict stand in line for the salad bar, one of new features of the Senior Lunch Program at the Patagonia Senior Center. Photo by Linda Jade Fong

Patagonia Senior Center President Ramon Quiroga was asked for examples of the health benefits from attending its Senior Lunch Program (SLP) since its makeover in late 2017. “Yes, me,” he said. “I’ve lost 30 pounds and I’m off insulin.” 

Quiroga is not alone. A recent survey of 30 attendees showed that 29 felt healthier since coming to the redesigned SLP, with reports of results such as weight loss and reductions in blood pressure, cholesterol, blood sugar, and arthritis. The popular lunch program also provides vital socialization. Increased donations from attendees are now making the program more financially sustainable. 

The SLP was almost shut down a year and a half ago, which led to implementing major changes in the menu. It had been given final notice of losing its funding for not meeting federal deadlines for compliancy with a nutritional evaluation issue. 

Community members and SLP supporters Binx Selby and Linda Jade Fong of BalancePoint Institute were asked to step in to help solve the urgent crisis. Selby and Fong had developed their nutritional expertise creating the science-based BalancePoint eating protocol for reducing and reversing inflammatory-based cardiometabolic diseases, including diabetes. 

The SLP needed to show analysis and certification that the lunches followed a complex set of 20 or so nutritional criteria set out by federal regulations. Hiring the required nutritionist would have been very costly, but Selby and Fong conscripted nutritionist Badria Bedri of Rio Rico to join their volunteer efforts. 

While ensuring that SLP menus were government-compliant, they also used the BalancePoint system to optimize menu choices to meet various dietary needs such as those of diabetics, vegetarians, gluten and grain-sensitive, or lactose intolerant. “Too many lunch programs,” said Selby, “contribute to, rather than reduce, conditions such as diabetes.” 

Selby, Fong and Bedri worked together, each donating hundreds of hours, to create meal plans with all those goals at a reasonable cost. Above all, they wanted the meals to be delicious. 

One of the most dramatic differences seen due to the revamped SLP has been a change in people’s eating habits. For example, previously diners would have a tiny serving of salad. Now there is a ten-item salad bar. The salad bar opens early and there is a long line up waiting for it. “I overheard a man saying he could never imagine eating, let alone looking forward to, big salads every day,” said Fong. Responses to the survey indicate that people are taking their new eating habits home. 

Chef Carla Haro, who came on board in 2018, uses the menu guidelines to create gourmet-quality meals, such as lemon grilled fish on a bed of shaved leeks, cauliflower tacos with avocado-cilantro sauce, or ribs served with Mexican quinoa. 

An average of 25-40 seniors, representing a diversity of socioeconomic and cultural backgrounds, come to the Senior Center daily for lunch. “There is tremendous affection between people,” said Selby, “It’s a place where people who come from different walks of life share a meal together and learn about one another.”

Recently 90-year-old Doris Wenig stood up at the end of lunch, grabbed the empty salad serving bowl and banged on it with a spoon to get people’s attention. “I just want to say how much I love the food,” she said, “and how much I love coming here every day just to see all of you.” 

Government funding subsidizes half of the cost of each meal, so contributions are necessary for the program to continue. Any seniors and their guests, of any age, are welcome for a donation. 

Senior lunch programs are generally facing dwindling attendance but the Patagonia one is thriving. 

BalancePoint Institute hopes to receive funding to research the impacts of its nutritional program so that it can be used as a model for other centers around the country to demonstrate how lifestyle change for health can be achieved.