In April, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced the creation of the Great Plates Delivered program, which had two goals in the midst of the COVID-19 shut-down order: feeding local seniors in need, and keeping restaurant workers employed.
Since then, the program has done both of those things. According to Riverside County spokesman Jose Arballo Jr., as of July 9, some 2,899 people have received 302,046 meals—three per day, seven days per week—from 51 restaurants employing 897 staffers countywide (not counting the cities of Perris, Moreno Valley and Rancho Mirage, which are administering the program themselves).
In the Coachella Valley (except for Rancho Mirage), Arballo said, 859 participants have received meals from 19 restaurants. In Rancho Mirage, 168 seniors from at least nine restaurants were receiving meals as of June 10, according to the city.
For Willie Rhine, the co-owner of Eight4Nine Restaurant and Lounge, participating in the program was a no-brainer, especially since the restaurant had launched a program to feed lunches to local health-care workers even before the Great Plates Delivered program was announced.
“Since the shutdown, we have delivered almost 2,000 boxed lunches to health-care workers throughout the valley,” Rhine said. “The Great Plates program seemed to fit perfectly and give us another opportunity to continue helping people, specifically seniors.
“Additionally, I wanted to keep as many staff employed as possible. The Great Plates program allowed us that opportunity.”
Great Plates delivered is largely funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, with the county or city administering the program chipping in a small percentage; as of now, the program is funded through Aug. 9. This program is open to seniors 65 or older, or seniors age 60-64 who are at high risk of COVID-19, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Participants can make up to 600 percent of the federal poverty limit; must live alone or with one other program-eligible adult; not be currently receiving aid from other state or federal nutrition-assistance programs; and affirm an inability to prepare or obtain meals for themselves.
In order to participate, restaurants must meet certain nutritional guidelines, such as including fresh fruits and vegetables on each dish; keeping foods low in sodium; and not including “sugary drinks” (although 100 percent fruit juice is allowed). Preference was also given to restaurants and food providers who source and prioritize food from California-based farms and ranches; meet the cultural needs of program participants; and promote standards of fairness and equality in employment practices.
In Riverside County, 49 percent of the participating restaurants are minority-owned, Arballo said. Restaurants can receive up to $66 percent day—$16 for breakfast, $17 for lunch, $28 for dinner, and up to $5 for incidentals. Some have their patrons order directly off the menu, while some don’t; some restaurants deliver daily, while others deliver multiple meals three times per week.
To meet the needs of their customers, each restaurant has been in close contact with the people they are serving, to learn about the special dietary needs the clients may have—like food allergies and diabetes—as well as their physical limitations. For example, Michael Fietsam, of Great Plates Delivered participant PS Underground, said one his customers has lost her fingers, so their chef devised special plating for each of her meals to ensure she can dine with dignity.
The restaurants have faced challenges essentially doing a large catering job every day.
“We originally received a list of clients in cities throughout the valley; we asked if we could limit our deliveries to clients closer to Eight4Nine, ensuring faster service and fresher product,” Rhine said. “Once we had a local client list, we could plan the logistics of daily deliveries. We deliver breakfast, lunch and dinner daily between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. We have been in the catering-events business for many years, so we simply adopted this program as a daily catering event and kept the logistics pretty simple.”
The program also ensures that some of the most-vulnerable members of our community have someone checking on them on a regular basis. Early on, one of the restaurants’ delivery people realized a client’s refrigerator wasn’t working, and the restaurant helped connect that client to services to get that fixed.
Robb Wirt, of Bongo Johnny’s, said the impact of Great Plates Delivered has been “immeasurable”—both to his business and the clients Bongo Johnny’s has been serving.
“Everyone has been so kind and appreciative—so many positive vibes,” Wirt said. “One guest says, ‘This 70-year-old retired teacher feels like a princess or like I have won the lottery, to experience your wonderful food. Thank you.’ … Another said: ‘I know we have said it before, but it deserves repeating over and over again: Thank you. Your staff and you are making this isolating period tolerable. Not only can we stay safer by not having to go out to the grocery stores numerous times a week; we also have a joyful moment each day as our delicious, healthy and well-presented meals arrive.’”
All of the restaurateurs we spoke to said they’re happy to participate in the program as long as it’s funded.
“Without community, we wouldn’t be here,” Wirt said.
For more information on the county’s Great Plates Delivered program, call the Riverside County Office on Aging at 800-510-2020. For more information on the Rancho Mirage program, call 877-652-4844, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Jimmy Boegle contributed to this story.