Palo Alto Weekly

- May 3, 2013

In one room, a history of the 20th century

Seniors with diverse stories gather for sociability, music and tasty hot meal

by Chris Kenrick

The 100-plus people who gather in downtown Palo Alto for lunch each day could tell you the history of the 20th century from their personal stories.

They are early scientists and engineers of Silicon Valley, who remember the construction of the Stanford Dish. They are teachers, social workers, volunteers, Holocaust survivors, Japanese-Americans interned during World War II, American veterans and vets of armies who fought on the other side.

Some have been in Palo Alto a half-century, settling here to raise families when homes now worth millions could be had for $25,000. Others, arrived recently, face steep housing and living costs that render them economically precarious.

At Monday-through-Friday senior lunches at the Avenidas senior center, they are drawn together by aging, the lure of sociability and a tasty hot meal.

Organizers of the senior lunch program, known as La Comida, oblige by providing table service in a dining room with floor-to-ceiling windows, live musical entertainment, flowers on the tables and meals cooked in a kitchen in the next room.

Program manager Mary Ruth Batchelder and a volunteer wait staff keep things cheerful, efficient and lively.

Some diners stop for lunch before or after a class at Avenidas, which offers a schedule ranging from bridge to Zumba.

Others come just for the meal.

Ruth and Jack Letts, who raised four kids in their 45 years in Palo Alto, get part of their daily exercise by walking the half-mile from their house on Lincoln Avenue.

Ninety-five-year-old retired physicist Bill Frye, who no longer drives, brings himself the mile from his home near Addison School in his mobility scooter.

Ira Karp, a Lytton Gardens resident and self-described 85-year-old "health nut," bikes or walks. Karp runs 10 miles a week and bicycles 15.

Mary Vanicek, who raised a family in Saratoga and held a variety of volunteer jobs, drives from her home in Menlo Park.

"The idea is to get seniors out of their homes," said Crystal Gamage, a La Comida board member who has volunteered with the program since it was launched by the Palo Alto Rotary Club in the parish hall of All Saints Episcopal Church in 1972.

"We have retired doctors, professors and homeless people.

"Some of our diners are well-to-do. Some are not. Some have wonderful backgrounds and some are just kind of average. La Comida represents that completely," Gamage said.

Meals are open to people over 60, who are asked, but not required, to donate $3 to offset part of the cost. The government, through the Older Americans Act of 1965, covers the rest. There is no means test for the program, whose primary purpose is senior nutrition and community.

At its peak in the early 1980s La Comida served about 160 meals a day.

Now the number is 130, and the program is in search of more diners.

Board member Bill Blodgett said La Comida easily could accommodate 20 to 30 more.

"It's a whole social environment rather than just an eating environment," said board member Mary Jean Place of Portola Valley.

"And we're very concerned about the seniors that are isolated within our community. The dining room serves as a social place for them as well as for food. Many seniors come for that, and we know more are out there."

Frye, who comes daily, dug into a lunch of roast chicken, rice, salad, a vegetable mix of carrots, squash and peppers, fresh fruit and milk.

"The meals here are magnificent and I don't know what I'd do without them," he said. "My cooking consists of pulling things out of the freezer and putting them in the microwave."

Frye, whose daughter lives in Italy and son in Colorado, said he stocks up at Trader Joe's when his son visits and can drive him over.

Alice Meyers, a retired administrator from NASA Ames Research Center, began volunteering after her husband died 10 years ago.

She works on Tuesdays, setting up tables, serving lunches, tea and coffee. Typically, she comes another two days a week just to dine.

"It's a nice atmosphere, the lunches are good and we have music during our meals," Meyers said.

"I come for the lunch and I come to help. If Mary Ruth is short of help, she calls and I come over."

Ruth Letts said she and her husband Jack come "as much for the sociability as anything.

"You meet people from all over the world," she said.

"People talk about fleeing their countries to come to the U.S. when the Reich was moving in Germany, France.

"Everyone has a story. It's not like us — we lived in a little township in Michigan."

The Letts family arrived in Palo Alto in 1968 for Jack Letts' medical residency at Stanford, and the couple has lived in the same house for 40 years.

"I never wanted to come because it was for old people and then one day I thought, 'Well, I'm old chronologically, but not in my heart,'" Ruth Letts said.

"Some of my friends say they don't want to go because it's a bunch of old people, but they don't know what they're missing."

La Comida serves in its main Avenidas dining room Monday through Friday from 11:15 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Menus are published in advance.

Reservation-only lunches also are served at Stevenson House, 455 E. Charleston Road, 650-494-1944, ext. 10.

On Wednesdays, lunches are served at Cubberley Community Center following Senior Friendship Day, when seniors are invited to attend a 10:30 a.m. presentation on topics of interest to older people.

For more information, see La Comida's website at www.lacomida.org.

Staff Writer Chris Kenrick can be emailed at ckenrick@paweekly.com.

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