La Comida Senior Nutrition, a longtime senior lunch program relied on by more than 160 seniors, is asking the community to help find a new location after a fruitless search, the organization said in a public announcement. The nonprofit organization must vacate its current home at Avenidas senior center by Aug. 30, but it does not have even an interim location to cook and serve lunches nor to serve catered meals to needy seniors, organization officials said.
La Comida has provided inexpensive nutritional lunches and important social interaction for at-risk seniors in Palo Alto for 45 years -- 39 of them at Avenidas, which is located at 450 Bryant St. in downtown. But expansion and renovation plans by Avenidas at the city-owned building will tear down the dining room's current location and add a three-story building.
To be ADA-complaint and meet fire regulations, the existing dining room space had to be adjusted to accommodate fire safety stairs, a new elevator, and more bathrooms, Avenidas President and CEO Amy Andonian said.
La Comida could have had a smaller dining room at Avenidas, which would have reduced the space from its current 140-person capacity to 79 to 90 persons. But the reduced capacity would not work with their objectives, the organization said.
With just four and a half months left to secure a permanent location, La Comida officials are becoming concerned. They have searched for a new location for several months but so far they have been unsuccessful, they said. La Comida sent a letter to the City Council on Friday outlining their needs.
"An ideal situation would be a church or other community organization that has a commercial kitchen and a communal space that can accommodate up to 130 diners each weekday. We have been exploring options with several organizations, but to date, nothing has come through. We could consider a kitchen that needs some upgrading," Bill Blodgett, La Comida board president, said.
La Comida has looked at several churches, but none could commit to the lunch program five days per week. Officials are currently in discussion regarding a site in south Palo Alto, but it has a maximum capacity of 100. Board members are considering using the space in the short or long term if they can't find other alternatives, but they haven't been able to complete an agreement with the landlord, they said.
A solution seemed at hand just a month ago. The city's Human Relations Commission unanimously approved recommending a $321,000 Community Development Block Grant on March 9. Commissioners voted in favor of an unprecedented amendment to allow La Comida to return for additional funding if needed to open and operate a facility at First United Methodist Church at 625 Hamilton Ave., in downtown. But those plans fell through and La Comida pulled their application, HRC Chairman Greer Stone said.
Blodgett said the church was not able to commit to using the facility. A significant kitchen renovation would have been required, which could not have been completed by September.
Stone lauded LA Comida's community contributions.
"We were fully behind their expansion. They are the only organization serving at-risk seniors in the city. ... The HRC is fully supportive of what they do. We were excited to open the process and now this has happened," he said.
As an individual and not as a commissioner, Stone said he thinks it is critical for the city find a place for La Comida.
"I'm sure we can find something; maybe find a city-owned property. We can't just let La Comida serve significantly less seniors or stop serving seniors altogether in Palo Alto."
Palo Alto Mayor Greg Scharff said he has only received the letter on Monday, and he planned to try to meet with La Comida executives.
"Obviously they provide a great service. We need to do what we can to help them," he said.
Scharff did not know if the city could provide a subsidy, for how long or for how much, but he said he wouldn't rule it out.
"I'm not putting it on the table today, but obviously it's something that we could seriously take a look at. We would try to find a solution," he said.
But Vice Mayor Liz Kniss, who was the council's liaison to Avenidas during the discussions between both organizations, said a remedy is difficult, although she acknowledged that La Comida is an integral part of services for seniors.
"This year the city's budget is very tight. It's a big expense. It's awkward with all of the other demands in the human-needs area. I'm sure we'll discuss it, but it's a serious long-term problem," she said.
Kniss said she had hoped that Avenidas and La Comida could have worked out a solution that could have kept the program at its Bryant Street location. One option was to accommodate clients in shifts.
"I frankly thought it could've been structured in a way to work. Now they find themselves in a very awkward position of not having a place lined up to move to," she said.
La Comida has five paid staff members and 65 volunteers, Blodgett said. Most of its revenue comes from city and county government grants. In fiscal year 2016-17 Santa Clara County gave $375,000 to the agency; the City of Palo Alto granted $35,000 in Human Services Resource Allocation Process funds, Blodgett said.
La Comida officials said the location dilemma could have a financial fallout. The use rate for the kitchen and dining room at Avenidas is $1,285 per month, which covers maintenance, utilities and other expenses. But that sum isn't realistic in the current real estate market.
"This is obviously dramatically below market rates in Palo Alto and lower than use rates we are likely to find from any other organization, nonprofit or otherwise, that might be willing to let us use their facility," the organization said in a statement. The higher costs would leave the organization scrambling for additional sources of funding.
"Without additional funding, La Comida may not be able to maintain a sustainable budget in a non-city-owned facility," the organization said in its letter to the council.
La Comida dropped its opposition in December after reaching a settlement with Avenidas. Under the agreement, Avenidas would help fund La Comida's relocation. Avenidas also agreed to provide some additional senior services at the new location and transportation assistance for seniors to the new facility.
Andonian said in December that it wasn't clear how much her organization would provide. The details would be worked out as La Comida looks at downtown locations.
Meanwhile, the need for basic nutritional food services among seniors has risen. In fiscal year 2014-15, La Comida served 35,318 meals; in fiscal year 2015-16, that total rose to 40,748, according to Santa Clara County Senior Nutrition Program reports.
The Rotary Club of Palo Alto started the lunch program in 1972 as a service project after conducting a yearlong survey of service needs in Palo Alto. It was first housed at All Saints Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. La Comida began serving the lunches at Avenidas in 1978. The Rotary built the dining room and the County of Santa Clara funded the kitchen equipment, La Comida noted.
Betsy Bechtel, Rotary president, said the organization has had a long history with La Comida and that some of its members are still involved. The club gave La Comida $5,000 toward finding a new location. The organization had 70 applications for grants this last year. Bechtel said she has not heard that La Comida was having trouble finding a new location.