Sebastopol Senior Center opens new affordable lunch program called The Harvest Café

By Brandon McCapes, Staff Writer, SoCoNews, August 16, 2021

harvest cafe

Left, Cliff Williams enjoys a meal at the Sebastopol Area Senior Center. Right, Sebastopol Area Senior Center volunteers Gary Bachelor and Mark Mumm with a community member. (Photos courtesy Sebastopol Area Senior Center)

After suspending its popular in-house lunch program amid the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020, the Sebastopol Area Senior Center is instituting a new dine-in experience for area seniors and community members: the Harvest Café.

The Sebastopol Area Senior Center, which serves approximately 3,000 community members throughout Sonoma County out of its location on High Street in Sebastopol, formerly had a successful lunch program in coordination with Council on Aging, according to Executive Director Katie Davis.

Until this July, when the senior center reopened provisionally, staff and volunteers had to adapt to serve the senior population by closing their doors and offering all classes on Zoom. Dine-in service was halted and meals, which had been provided in conjunction with grants through the Council on Aging, were shifted to delivery only, with meals delivered weekly to the doors of community members to help protect vulnerable populations and slow the spread of COVID-19.

Now that the center has reopened, dine-in service will resume Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., provided the pandemic resurgence doesn’t force them to shutter once more. If all goes to plan, the Harvest Café will open on Aug. 31.

The center began experimenting with the idea of opening a permanent café after reopening last month with “pop-up” lunches. The third of four was held Aug. 13, with the final pop-up on Aug. 25.

The Harvest Café venture will not be funded through the Council on Aging, as it was in the past, but run through the senior center alone. Meals will be priced between $8 and $12 — a cost that seniors can afford on a fixed income. All members of the community are welcome to dine at Harvest Café, however.

“This is the first time the center is doing a lunch program like this in our 52-year history, so it’s pretty exciting,” Davis said. She said she has been getting dozens of calls a week about when the center would resume some form of its old dining program since reopening this July.

Davis said the lunch program, as it was run prior to the COVID-19 lockdowns, was a critical social resource for many seniors who frequented the center — an opportunity to meet, laugh and connect with others. Along with classes and other programming, it was part of a system that allowed staff and volunteers to check in on vulnerable populations, ensuring they were connected to available resources and being cared for properly.

During the pandemic, the center had to pivot to Zoom classes and deliveries, still working to make sure their seniors were doing alright despite limited in-person contact.

Davis, her staff and volunteers will continue delivering five-packs of homemade, frozen meals to doors to 120 recipients in their service area — about 800 meals per week.

Gerald Lowe, who is opening the Harvest Café as the head chef, said the menu will be focused on comfort food that travels well, so that diners can take advantage of take out options to keep themselves safe.

“Currently, my focus is to provide some familiar food — not experimenting with flavors too much, just trying to recreate the classics. Chicken pot pie is a good example,” Lowe said.

Lowe graduated from the Culinary Academy of San Francisco in 1984, and has run kitchens throughout Sonoma County, including at the Inn at Occidental and the Jenner Inn. He also opened the critically-acclaimed Willowside restaurant.

Lowe hopes to start culinary classes that teach seniors how to make quick but delicious and nutritious meals — dishes like beef bolognese, pasta, chicken pot pie and his speciality, sausage.

In line with Sonoma County’s agricultural roots after which he named the café, Lowe plans to incorporate produce grown by local gardeners, or grown in-house when gardening classes resume at the center. He particularly hopes to get pears and apples for jams and chutneys this fall. He also has plans to host wine and food pairing events open to the whole community this September.

Davis said that many seniors who had to self-isolate due to the higher risks of COVID-19-related illness in their age group had a particularly difficult time during the lockdowns, particularly during the holiday season.

“Last winter was a dark time for folks. We were getting a lot of reports of isolation,” Davis said.

Now, with things tentatively staying open with only a mask mandate back in place, Davis said spirits were higher, particularly among seniors visiting the center.

“Even though we’re requiring masks, people meet here to connect with each other. It does seem, on an informal basis, that morale is improving, especially since we’ve been doing the pop-up lunches.” Davis said it’s been nice to have the sound of laughter in the hallways again.

The center is currently resuming support groups in person, such as the memory care group, which provides day-long activities for memory patients, giving respite to their caretakers twice a week. To see the schedule of online and in-person classes, visit www.sebastopolseniorcenter.org.

The senior center is also looking for volunteers for a variety of positions. Applications are available on the website or by calling 707-829-2440.

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