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updated: 12/30/2011 5:19 PM

Latino menu for Elgin seniors on hold

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After a year of hard work getting a Mexican-American menu approved for seniors, changes to the Salvation Army Golden Diners program are stalled because of money.

Major Ken Nicolai said providing a Latino option to Elgin area seniors has been a priority for him since he took the program administrator position in 2010. For a long time, the delay came from waiting for dietary approval.

"Malnourishment among seniors is on the rise and we really do need something in place for the Hispanic population," Nicolai said.

Nicolai had to seek modifications to the standard meal requirements because of higher salt and fat in recipes he found for Mexican food -- and he had no model in Illinois to follow. Nicolai said a Mexican-American blend should still be appealing to diners but also meet the requirements.

But after about a year of negotiations, and approval just last week, Nicolai does not expect to launch the program by the new year as he had hoped.

A spike in attendance at the senior meals and delayed payment from the Northeastern Illinois Area Agency on Aging, funded by the state, have combined to make the new menu impossible to implement.

"When we started all this, attendance was actually under target so we thought we would do this to bring it to target," Nicolai said. "Then all of a sudden everything switched."

The number of seniors coming in for the free meals offered up to five days per week has doubled in the last few months, catching the Salvation Army off guard. Nicolai said numbers had been on a downward trend for decades.

Meals are offered to seniors at 10 sites in Kane and McHenry counties through the Geneva-based program. The new menu would have been offered at just one site in Elgin.

The sudden spike in attendance is attributed to state benefits cuts, like those for prescription medication.

"We knew there were going to be cuts in senior programs, but we didn't anticipate it would impact more seniors coming to us on this scale," Nicolai said.

In Elgin, meals are offered five days a week at Judson University and twice each week at Senior Services. The new menu would have been offered at Senior Services five days a week.

Nicolai said if the current attendance trends keep up and the budget issues stay the same, Golden Diners might have to put seniors on waiting lists even without the expansion.

"I'm very disappointed," Nicolai said. "I know proper nutrition is needed for elderly Latinos. They have the highest rates of nutrition-related diseases and we wanted to affect that. Now we can't begin to attempt to address that."

The menu changes are being put on hold indefinitely.

Nicolai said if attendance numbers stabilize he will implement the program right away. But that is something he said is impossible to predict.

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