In an arrangement officials said will have statewide benefits while maintaining local character, Cranston will provide meals for the Pilgrim Senior Center in Warwick through an agreement signed by the mayors of both cities last week.
“It’s an exciting day. We’ve been talking for several years about how we can get some consolidation and collaboration on services, and this is a good start,” said Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, sitting alongside Cranston Mayor Allan Fung at the Cranston Senior Services building during the Feb. 14 announcement and signing ceremony.
“It’s been a long time that we’ve had discussions about better ways to collaborate and work together to benefit both of our residents, so today’s a great day,” said Fung.
WestBay Community Action, for a number of years, has prepared meals at Pilgrim, both for that center and other facilities in the state. Warwick officials learned several weeks ago that the agency plans to subcontract the meal program to an outside catering company, meaning meals would no longer be prepared at Pilgrim as of Feb. 28.
Avedisian said as a result, Warwick reached out to Cranston regarding the feasibility of having meals prepared at the latter city’s senior center, which already provides food for 29 sites across the state. He said officials felt it would be preferable for Warwick’s seniors to have meals prepared “10 minutes up the road” rather than through an out-of-state contractor, particularly given the Cranston facility’s current capabilities and reputation for quality.
“It gave us an opportunity to look at lots of different options,” he said.
Avedisian said Warwick will pick up the meals in Cranston and deliver them to Pilgrim. The city will see the benefit of reduced “wear and tear” and maintenance costs for the center’s kitchen, he said.
Additionally, the recent retirement of the Warwick center’s kitchen manager has allowed for a restructuring in which administrative duties have shifted, and a WestBay employee who worked at the site has been hired as Warwick’s new kitchen manager to oversee the program and work with Cranston’s staff.
Avedisian also said his previous discussions with Fung about potential collaboration, and the recent appointment of former Warwick councilwoman Susan Stenhouse as Cranston’s executive director of senior services, made the new arrangement particularly appealing and led to an agreement being reached quickly.
“This whole notion of having the right people at the right time to pull this all together really worked for us,” he said.
Fung welcomed Warwick “into the family,” and praised the work of Ray Sinapi, chef and director of the Cranston center’s nutrition division, and his staff to prepare a “healthy, nutritious lunch” for seniors. Cranston’s center prepares an average of 1,100 meals each day.
“Ray and his staff do a lot of wonderful things serving meals throughout the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “They have an excellent, excellent menu every single day.”
Catherine Taylor, director of the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs, was on hand for the announcement and signing ceremony, and praised the two communities for working together.
“Warwick and Cranston have two of the highest populations of elders in the state … so this collaboration is really huge,” she said.
Taylor said federal budget cuts under sequestration have significantly impacted senior services, and she spoke of the partnership between Cranston and Warwick as a model in terms of maximizing available resources while maintaining the “local character and responsiveness” of meal sites.
“Federal sequestration has hit senior nutrition really hard throughout the state, and nutrition providers are doing what they can to tighten their belts,” she said.
Since the meals program is federally funded, Taylor said, Warwick’s agreement with Cranston will allow the Pilgrim center’s former provider to utilize resources elsewhere, while Cranston is well positioned to provide the additional meals.
“I think it’s a win-win for everyone in the state … We want as many meals as possible to happen even though we have a set amount of money,” she said.
Taylor said finding such ways to strengthen meals programs is critical, given the vital role they play for seniors in terms of overall health.
“This program is one of the chief ones we have to combat isolation,” she said. “This is the best thing that seniors can do for themselves in terms of their health and independence, is to come into a center and eat a good meal.”
Officials said Cranston’s meals program is administered by Blackstone Health, which is a division of VNA of Care New England. The program utilizes federal funds provided through the state’s Division of Elderly Affairs under Title III C of the federal Older Americans Act.
Meals are provided five days a week to those 60 and older, regardless of income, as well as to those with disabilities. Participants are asked to make a voluntary contribution of $3 per meal, but no one is turned away.
“It’s rewarding to know that we have had a hand in providing a healthy, balanced and nutritious meal for seniors, many of whom would have gone without,” said Sinapi.
Fung and Avedisian said their communities would explore new ways to collaborate going forward.
“We’re always looking for any type of way that we can work better for all of our residents,” said Fung.
Stenhouse cited her discussions with Fung about pursuing such arrangements, and noted that Cranston’s senior center, which recently marked its 25th anniversary, has been innovative in its approach to elder services.
“This whole building has a legacy of being the first of its kind in putting all of the senior services under one roof,” she said. “This is a very, very comprehensive model that started 25 years ago … This is like the next step in that legacy.”
Others who were present for the announcement included Meg Underwood, director of Warwick’s Department of Senior Services; Holly Weber, manager of the Pilgrim Senior Center; Carlos Lopez, Fung’s chief of staff; Alyssa Joyce, the nutritionist at Blackstone; and Nancy Roberts, director, Blackstone Health/Care New England.