In this world, one rarely encounters a scenario in which all parties involved benefit—but the state of California’s Great Plates Delivered program has created such a scenario locally since shortly after the pandemic took hold.
That concept is simple: The government pays struggling restaurants to prepare three quality meals a day for COVID-19 home-restricted seniors—meals which are then delivered to those seniors’ homes.
The program was an overwhelming success: As of this writing, 19 restaurants and 702 residents in the Coachella Valley, not counting Rancho Mirage, are participating in the portion of Great Plates being administered by Riverside County. Across the county, as of Dec. 18, the program had served 3,264 residents some 1,257,147 meals from 55 restaurants since its inception, according to Riverside County’s Office on Aging.
A handful of cities chose to administer the Great Plates Delivered program themselves, including Rancho Mirage. Jessica Pulliam, management analyst for Rancho Mirage, said more than 330 people there have been served three meals per day by 17 participating restaurants or caterers—meaning more than 170,000 meals have been served via the program in Rancho Mirage thus far.
The state will keep the program in place as long as it is authorized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Public Assistance program. Great Plates has been extended several times—occasionally at the last minute—and it is currently authorized through Jan. 7, 2021; however, the state plans to request yet another extension.
Therefore, it came as a shock to participating restaurants and seniors when Riverside County announced it would be ending the Great Plates program as of Dec. 18—and that for the final week, only two meals per day would be included. The county has since changed course and extended those two meals per day through Dec. 30. However, participants were still surprised the county would cut and then end the program prematurely—during the darkest days of the pandemic, no less.
“I was shocked,” said Robb Wirt, the owner of Bongo Johnny’s restaurant in Palm Springs, and a participating food provider in the Great Plates program. “I thought that it was extremely bad timing, given that we’re in a shutdown, and the COVID-19 pandemic is at its worst—and it was also disbelief since other counties in California have extended it through Jan. 7. Throughout the duration of this program, they’ve been saying that it’s over, and then at the last minute, they extend it. They would extend it for a month, and then it would be for another month. Then it was only extended for like two weeks. And then it got extended for two days. And now we got it extended for another two weeks. So it’s interesting. You have to roll with the punches these days.”
Why did the county—unlike other administrating agencies, including Rancho Mirage, across the state—decide to end the program before Jan. 7?
“Due to limited financial resources moving forward, the county must prioritize food programs and meal-delivery programs for low-income residents and ensure that funding is available for the many programs and services the county offers to respond to, and lessen the impacts of, the pandemic,” said the county’s public information officer, Brooke Federico, via email.
Federico said the county is carrying a large debt burden on its books, spawned by Great Plates, which will total $12.6 million by Dec. 30, Federico said.
“The county has not been reimbursed by the state or FEMA for that $12.6 million portion,” Federico said, “and there is no timetable as to when that might happen. So Riverside County has to pay that cost upfront, and then seek reimbursement. That is the standard reimbursement process during any federally declared emergency.”
In a subsequent phone interview, V. Manuel Perez, the Riverside County District 4 Supervisor and board chair, explained why the county first decided to end Great Plates before giving it a limited reprieve.
“Look, that’s always a balance, right?” Perez said. “We’re (reducing the program) from three meals a day to two meals. We will continue now to serve two meals a day to those same clients. But looking at this through an equity lens: Can we do a better job of targeting resources to underserved communities? Yes. And I’m hoping we do a better job of that, quite frankly, with all of our programs and services. That’s what we should be doing. “
The reimbursable cost for three meals had been set at $66 per person, per day, as compared to $49 for just the two meals.
“By all means, we would love to continue the program past January 2021, but like anything else, it’s all contingent on resources,” Perez said. “What we’ve been able to do is continue the program until Dec. 30 with the hopes that, at the federal level, we’ll see a CARES Act 2.0. If that does happen, and if we receive our fair share of dollars, I’m sure that the County of Riverside and my (board) colleagues would be willing to extend this program. … By extending this program until Dec. 30, (even at just two meals daily), we’ll be spending another $1.3 to $1.5 million.”
The relief bill expected to be approved by Congress this week contains little to no direct help for state and local governments, making it less likely the county will extend Great Plates into 2021. Even if the county somehow did find a way, Perez said significant changes could be made.
“There are certain things we can change to make this program more effective and more efficient,” Perez said. “For instance, we’re looking at the actual costs of the meals per day to see if we can make it a little more cost effective. We don’t know if we can, but we want to take a look at that. Also the number of meals a day: Well, let’s take a look at that. … When it comes to income ranges (for participating clients) … maybe there should be a cap” lower than the current cap, of 600 percent or less of the federal poverty limit.
To Bongo Johnny’s Wirt, the most important thing is that Great Plates continues in one form or another.
“Given the shutdown (currently in effect again), and the fact that there’s no other resources readily available for businesses, this program has been a lifeline for my business as well as for my employees and the people that we’re serving,” Wirt said.
That lifeline for Wirt and his 72 daily Great Plates customers represents a major portion of the restaurant’s income under current pandemic conditions.
“If we’re under a stay-at-home order, or a takeout-only model, there’s just no way to stay afloat long-term,” Wirt said. “I’d say 75-80 percent of our revenue now is from Great Plates, so it’s substantial. You know, our takeout business is 10 orders a day, and that’s not enough to employ 15 people”—reduced from 30—“and pay the rent.”
Wirt said he’s also concerned about what will happen to the seniors that Bongo Johnny’s and other restaurants have been feeding.
“The program has been going on for so long now that people have begun to rely on it,” Wirt said. “It’s become normal. When the program was cancelled, the customers were panicked. Here they are under a renewed stay-at-home order, but they’re not going to have this program, so they’ll have to go out and buy food. And they were wondering how they were going to do that because they don’t have the resources, and they’re afraid. … The sad part is that it will eventually end, so we need to prepare them. The county should have resources for these individuals to transition to.”
On that point, Brooke Federico, with Riverside County, said concerned seniors should contact the county to learn about other possible assistance.
“Our Riverside County Office on Aging department regularly provides meals to low-income seniors,” she said. “There are several food- and meal-delivery options available for eligible residents, particularly low-income seniors. So we ask them to contact the Office On Aging to see if they are eligible for any of these other programs.”
For more information about the Great Plates Delivered program, visit covid19.ca.gov/restaurants-deliver-home-meals-for-seniors. For information on other existing meal delivery programs, contact the Riverside County Office on Aging’s Senior Helpline at 800-510-2020, or visit www.rcaging.org.