New Harmony Cafe provides free meals to seniors
New Harmony Cafe. One of the city's restaurants participating in Great Plates.

The Great Plates Delivered Program, an emergency food assistance program that has served more than 213,000 free meals to seniors sheltering in place, including 2,216 in San Francisco, has been extended to August 9 as the pandemic continues to keep seniors indoors, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced over the weekend.

Shireen McSpadden, the executive director of the city’s Department of Disability and Aging Service, which administers the program in San Francisco, said it has helped seniors as well as the city’s restaurants that are still closed for all but takeout and deliveries.  

But, she said, it has served too few Black and Latinx seniors. Out of the 2,216 participants, the program currently serves 119 Black seniors and 103 Latinx seniors or 5.3 percent and 4.6 percent of those who are receiving meals. Blacks comprise about 5 percent of the city’s senior population and Latinxs about 10 percent.  Asian and Pacific Islanders comprise 42 percent of the city’s senior population, according to a 2016 assessment by the San Francisco Department of Aging and Adult Services 

“The Latinx and Black communities, in particular, are ones we feel could be better represented in the program’s participants,” said McSpadden, “so we’re doing a really targeted outreach and want people to know that this program is available to everyone in the city who needs it.” 

The Great Plates Delivered program allows eligible seniors to receive up to three free meals a day made by local restaurants and vendors. 

Seniors interested in the Great Plates Delivered program can either fill out an online interest form or call the DAS resource helpline at (415) 355-6700 in order to determine eligibility. McSpadden urges all interested participants to call the helpline, as staff can connect them with other support programs in the case that they aren’t qualified for the Great Plates Delivered program. The helpline is available every day from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and has support available in multiple languages. 

In San Francisco, two organizations select the restaurants: the SF New Deal, a nonprofit founded last March that partners with small businesses and community organizations; and Off the Grid, a San Francisco-based food truck marketplace business founded in 2010 that helps manage the logistics of delivering food for the program. 

Off the Grid is also responsible for scheduling the food deliveries – so far, it has assigned 45,000 meals and couriers to different restaurants – and manages community helplines.  

The program has also partnered with Moonstar, a buffet in San Francisco that has been delivering food to a number of qualified seniors through Self-Help for the Elderly, a non-profit organization that serves seniors in Chinatown. 

A variety of over 50 restaurants are currently partnered with the program, allowing for ethnic diversity in meal choices.

“I think that the community that we’re serving is ethnically diverse and so it was incredibly important for us to select restaurants that are ethnically diverse in the food that they produce as well,” said Suresh Khanna, chief operating officer at Off the Grid. “We’ve got Chinese, Mexican, Italian, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, and American local restaurants and vendors serving free meals ‒ and 84 percent of them are minority.”

Eligible seniors that get enrolled can choose what type of food they want and get put on a list to receive meals on the next Monday, Wednesday, or Friday delivery date. Seniors will receive two to three days’ worth of food at their doorstep. Additionally, all couriers delivering the meals are background-checked. 

“Aside from making sure to give the seniors food that they’re excited to eat, we make it a goal to provide quality meals,” said SF New Deal founder and Three Babes Bakeshop Co-founder Lenore Estrada, “We spend $10 on average per meal and engage with restaurant chefs and participant feedback in order to improve the meals and the experience as a whole.”

With the success of the program since its launch by Governor Gavin Newsom in April, there is a new goal to connect and serve other demographics. 

DAS, Off the Grid, and SF New Deal are currently working towards extensive community outreach by connecting with certain neighborhoods and community partners within those neighborhoods. Additionally, videos and other means of information are provided in different languages like Spanish and Chinese and are available on their social media platforms. 

As a way of supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the program has also set a goal to support the movement by recruiting Black businesses in San Francisco to source meals from. The program currently has seven participating Black-owned restaurants and vendors including Radio Africa Kitchen that specializes in Ethiopian food and Peaches Patties that specializes in Jamaican food. 

“We want to be proactive about supporting the movement and also hope that this is also another means of outreach to the Black community,” said Khanna. 

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