Bob and Kathy Bradford make their home in Willow Lakes Estates, a senior living community in Elgin. Kathy has used a walker since she broke her leg, and Bob has heart problems. She said their medical costs have gone through the roof -- a not-so-pleasant reality in what Bob sarcastically calls their "golden years."
The program offers a hot meal every weekday, saving the couple money on food and energy on cooking. It also gives them a chance to socialize with many of their neighbors, who make up 90 percent of those eating at the Alumni Room at Judson University, which is right up the road from them.
"When we first came here we didn't know anybody," Bob Bradford said. "Now we know a few people at every table."
But the Bradfords haven't been the only ones taking advantage of the free or low-cost meal option.
According to Salvation Army Maj. Ken Nicolai, the Golden Diners program went from serving 147,000 meals two years ago to 172,000 meals in the year that ended Sept. 30. For the first time in the program's 40-year history, Nicolai had to consider the possibility of putting 87 seniors on a waiting list -- a precedent he did not want to set.
By paying an outside vendor per meal for the food, Nicolai didn't have much room to cut costs. So he started thinking about a major program overhaul.
Enter the city of Elgin.
The Hemmens Cultural Center is a city-owned performing arts venue with an industrial-sized kitchen in its lower level. By making The Hemmens the site of a central kitchen for Golden Diners, the program can save $200,000 each year, Nicolai said.
"It's a perfect matching of assets," said Elgin Mayor David Kaptain, who helped facilitate the partnership.
The Salvation Army will pay The Hemmens about $40,000 a year for use of the kitchen and its equipment.
Two new Golden Diners chefs took over meal preparation Oct. 1 with a handful of employees and volunteers packaging, loading and delivering the meals from The Hemmens.
Nicolai said about eight volunteers helped on the first day of the new arrangement in positions that did not exist last month, helping hold down the cost of providing the service.
"Before, if someone didn't want to drive to deliver meals or serve, we had no opportunity for them to help us," Nicolai said. "Now they can bag or package food and feel like a real part of something."
Already looking ahead
Switching operations to the central kitchen is allowing Golden Diners to reach more seniors, welcome additional volunteers, make use of an underutilized city facility and save a lot of money. But Nicolai is already planning for the next program change.
In the next few months, Nicolai hopes to offer ethnic meal options -- a shift that is possible only because of menu flexibility afforded by paying in-house chefs.
Nicolai worked for more than a year to get approval for a Mexican-American menu from state dietitians, hoping to start offering it at Senior Services Associates in Elgin last winter. The vendor would have charged extra for the special meal, which made the expansion impossible in the midst of a surge in demand for the standard program.
Participants are asked to contribute nothing to up to $4 per meal based on their ability to pay, while the cost to operate the program was $6.75 a meal, according to the program's website. The difference is covered by federal funding.
Now with the reorganization, it seems likely the Golden Diners menu will include Mexican and Laotian cuisine as soon as Jan. 1 in an effort to appeal to two substantial demographic groups in the area.
"Everything that has kept us down, everything that has kept us from achieving much of anything in the last couple years, it seems like we broke free from that and we're able to now be the program we need to be for our elderly population," Nicolai said.
With the central kitchen, the chefs show up at 5:30 a.m. to start heating up food they prepared the day before. People in charge of packaging get in closer to 6 a.m. and start putting milk, bread and fruit into paper bags.
Each meal always includes a meat, a starch and vegetables plus the cold items -- all safe for those with diabetes. There also is a vegetarian option.
The food is supposed to be out of the kitchen by 8 a.m. and off to the sites, after which the chefs can turn to cooking for the next day.
That's when volunteers like 21-year-old Judson University senior Brianna Di Gioia of Glendale Heights are just getting started. Di Gioia began working with the seniors from The Salvation Army Golden Diners Program last year as part of a required practicum. She is majoring in health and wellness and planning to work with the senior community in her career. This year her participation is no longer required for graduation, but she helps most days nonetheless.
"I've developed a lot of relationships with them, so that's what keeps me coming back," Di Gioia said.
• To volunteer with the Golden Diners, call (630) 232-6676 or show up at the central kitchen anytime between 6 a.m. and noon Monday through Friday at 45 Symphony Way in Elgin. The loading door on the west side of the building is open in the morning when the main doors are locked.