Dwight Ivory had never tried an empanada.
Now, he likes the savory Latin American pastry so much he wants to find a recipe and make some for his family.
Ivory, 69, tried his first empanada last year when he picked up a free meal from Antigua Latin Inspired Kitchen in West Allis. He qualified for the meal through the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services’ newest senior meal program, the Dine Out program.
“These are hot meals,” Ivory said. “They’re not mass produced in some commercial or industrial kitchen somewhere, and they have a home-cooked feel to them.”
The DHHS Aging and Disabilities Services gets the meals from three local, minority-owned restaurants: Antigua, 6207 W. National Ave., West Allis; Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille, 754 N. 27th St.; and Orenda Café, 3514 W. National Ave.
Dine Out meals are free to all Milwaukee County seniors 60 and older, but a $3 donation is suggested.
Ivory has been picking up meals from Daddy’s and Antigua for himself, his aunts and his two brothers most weeks since the Dine Out program began in April 2021. He and his family prefer the Dine Out meals to other DHHS senior meal options.
He said the meals have been convenient because his brothers have physical ailments and his aunts, in their late 80s, prefer not to cook anymore.
“It takes a load off my mind because my brothers … they would just survive off of a sandwich or something all day. This gives them a good, home-cooked, balanced meal,” Ivory said. “Same with my aunts. For a period of time, my aunts’ breakfast and lunch was cereal.”
Diversifying the menu
Gaylyn Reske, the senior dining program coordinator for the Aging & Disabilities Services, said the county wanted to work with locally owned restaurants for a long time. She began developing the Dine Out program in the fall of 2019.
Reske also manages Milwaukee County’s Meals on Wheels service and in-house senior dining programs at senior and community centers.
“We got a lot of requests from our participants or people who would like to participate in the dining program but don’t or hadn’t because they were looking for some more ethnic foods,” Reske said.
Seniors, especially those who identify as Black or Hispanic, wanted meals more reminiscent of those they’d enjoy at home, but Reske said it was difficult to accommodate the requests because the Meals on Wheels and senior dining menus have to appeal to over 2,500 seniors a week from a variety of backgrounds.
At the same time, minority-owned restaurants in Milwaukee were struggling through the pandemic.
Reske realized that by working with minority-owned restaurants, the county could support two groups: seniors seeking more diverse meal options and restaurants struggling because of the pandemic.
Reske reached out to The Business Council and the Layton Boulevard West Neighbors and was connected with the owners of Daddy’s, Antigua and Orenda.
Now, the Dine Out program has been operating for more than a year and provides almost 300 free meals each week. Black participants account for 85% of the new diners, Reske said.
Supporting minority-owned restaurants
Bennie Smith, the owner of Daddy’s Soul Food & Grille, credits the Dine Out program with helping him attract many new customers.
Many seniors who pick up meals from Daddy’s were not customers in the past.
Often, a senior will bring a meal home, a younger family member will try some and like it, and that diner will come to the restaurant a few days later, Smith said.
Now, a number of siblings, children and friends of Dine Out seniors have become regular customers at Daddy’s.
“It really is a win-win for both of us because, while we were doing it for the seniors, it turned out to be really beneficial to us, as well,” Smith said.
Smith and his restaurant are no strangers to supporting seniors in the community. In honor of his late father’s battle with Alzheimer’s, Smith hosted a recurring memory café at Daddy’s for nine months in 2017.
The memory café provided a safe and engaging dining environment for seniors with dementia and their caregivers.
Smith said the café program was discontinued because of a lack of funding, so he’s happy he can continue to support seniors through the Dine Out program.
Passing the savings along
Joy Wallace, 65, and her husband started picking up Dine Out meals from Daddy’s in early summer.
Wallace praised the program, saying she is impressed with the food’s freshness and gladly provides the suggested $3 donation with each meal.
“Where else can you get a real lunch and dinner for, like, three bucks a meal?” she said. “It saves me from having to cook two days a week in this hot weather and with expensive as cooking is.”
The money she saves thanks to the Dine Out program allows her to help her grandson and two sons, who she said — despite working full time — have been greatly affected by rising gas prices and inflation. Without notice, one of her son’s rents went up $300 a month.
“Even the Dollar Store is a buck and a quarter now,” Wallace lamented.
More restaurants might join
The Dine Out program is made possible by the Older Americans Act, a federal initiative that provides grants to states to fund programs for people 60 and older. The act was passed in 1965 and reauthorized in 2020.
DHHS uses Older American Act funds to pay for the carryout supplies and the delivery of the meals to the pickup locations as well as pay its restaurant partners $8 a meal.
Although the restaurants get less a meal than they usually charge, the Dine Out meals’ portions are smaller than the restaurants’ in-house portions, Reske said.
Reske plans to continue expanding the Dine Out program’s offerings using funding provided by the American Rescue Plan Act.
She said she has spoken with many restaurants interested in partnering with DHHS and hopes to add four minority-, female- or veteran-owned restaurants to the menu over the next three years.
Seniors or caregivers interested in picking up meals through the Dine Out program can call the Senior Dining office at (414) 289-6995.
How to get Milwaukee County’s Dine Out meals
Seniors 60-plus or their caregivers can pick up free meals Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at three rotating curbside pickup locations throughout Milwaukee County. The meals are free, but a donation of $3 is suggested. Reservations are required; call the Senior Dining Office at (414) 289-6995 for information about making reservations.
Daddy’s offers pickup Tuesdays and Thursdays at 11:30 a.m. at Greater Galilee Church, 2432 N. Teutonia Ave.
Breakfast from Orenda is available for pickup Wednesdays at 9 a.m. at the School Sisters of St. Francis, 1501 S. Layton Blvd.
Lunch pickup at Antigua takes place Wednesdays at 11:30 a.m. in the restaurant’s parking lot, 6207 W. National Ave. in West Allis.
Milwaukee County also serves senior meals at more than a dozen sites and provides Meals on Wheels for homebound residents. Information about both programs is available at the same website.
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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee senior dining program provides free meals from minority-owned restaurants