Out & About: Windsor Diner serves up free meals to seniors through new program

Chantelle DeRobertis writes down a takeout order for a Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program meal at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Tickets, which cover the cost of a meal excluding beverages, tax and gratuity, are available to anyone 60 and over and can be redeemed at the diner Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Chantelle DeRobertis writes down a takeout order for a Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program meal at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Tickets, which cover the cost of a meal excluding beverages, tax and gratuity, are available to anyone 60 and over and can be redeemed at the diner Wednesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

Windsor Diner owner Theresa Taylor finishes plating a burger on toast with gravy, peas and cottage cheese in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The meal, which meets the nutritional standards of the Older Americans Act, is one of four regular options available to Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program participants, along with rotating specials. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Windsor Diner owner Theresa Taylor finishes plating a burger on toast with gravy, peas and cottage cheese in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The meal, which meets the nutritional standards of the Older Americans Act, is one of four regular options available to Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program participants, along with rotating specials. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Flyers with menu options for the Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program sit by the register at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Seniors can get three meal tickets per week by calling the Senior Solutions help line and having them mailed or by picking them up at the Windsor Food Shelf. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Flyers with menu options for the Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program sit by the register at the Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Seniors can get three meal tickets per week by calling the Senior Solutions help line and having them mailed or by picking them up at the Windsor Food Shelf. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Windsor Diner owner Theresa Taylor prepares a Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program meal in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The program launched in February, and if it is successful and funding allows Senior Solutions plans to expand to other diners in the area in the future. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Windsor Diner owner Theresa Taylor prepares a Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program meal in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. The program launched in February, and if it is successful and funding allows Senior Solutions plans to expand to other diners in the area in the future. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News / Report For America photographs — Alex Driehaus

The Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Windsor does not have a senior center where congregate meals are offered, and the Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program gives seniors a nearby option for free meals during the week. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

The Windsor Diner in Windsor, Vt., on Thursday, March 14, 2024. Windsor does not have a senior center where congregate meals are offered, and the Senior Solutions Restaurant Ticket Program gives seniors a nearby option for free meals during the week. (Valley News / Report For America - Alex Driehaus) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Alex Driehaus

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 5:01 PM

WINDSOR — Theresa Taylor shuffled a couple dozen tickets containing the names of older adults behind the counter at the Windsor Diner, which she has owned for around 15 years.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Taylor was used to seeing groups of seniors gather at the popular eatery in downtown Windsor. Even though the worst of the pandemic has passed, they’ve been slow to come back. That’s started to change since February when the diner joined Senior Solutions’ Restaurant Ticket Program where older adults can get a free nutritious meal three times a week.

“We’re getting people to come back out. They’re socializing,” Taylor said on a recent Thursday afternoon at the diner. “I’m happy to be in the program and they’re happy to be here.”

The Windsor Diner is the first restaurant to participate in the new program introduced by Senior Solutions, a Springfield, Vt.-based nonprofit organization that serves older adults in 46 towns in Bennington, Orange, Windham and Windsor counties.

The program is funded with roughly $5,000 in grants and will go through at least the end of the year. Each senior can receive three tickets per week, which they can redeem at the Windsor Diner from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Wednesday through Friday. While the meal itself is free, participants must pay for the Vermont sales tax, beverages and gratuity, or for any additional menu items. They can also get takeout instead of dining in.

Tickets are distributed by Windsor’s Support and Services and Home (SASH) office, Mount Ascutney’s Volunteers in Action program, the Windsor Food Pantry and the Veterans Center in White River Junction, among others. People also can call Senior Solutions at 866-673-8376 to request them.

“Anyone who is 60 and older qualifies, end of discussion,” Thom Simmons, Senior Solutions’ nutrition director, said, adding that the program is open to residents of any town, including those who reside on the New Hampshire side of the Upper Valley. “Think of this just like any other congregate meal: the senior shows up and they get to eat. The only difference here is the venue is a diner as opposed to a church hall or a senior center.”

Simmons reached out to Taylor in part because of the diner’s participation in the Everyone Eats! program, which provided meals to people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taylor worked with Simmons to develop a choice of four menu items: a tuna, turkey or roast beef sandwich with greens and cottage cheese; two eggs any style with wheat toast and fruit; side salad with a scoop of tuna salad served with tomato slices and wheat toast; and a hot hamburger on whole wheat toast with gravy, veggie of the day and cottage cheese.

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“We worked out a special menu that seniors can choose from that is nutritionally approved,” Simmons said. “It’s got all the right elements in terms of whole grains and vitamin(s) A and C, and things like that.”

It has been a bit of a challenge putting together meals that meet the nutritional standards set in the Older Americans Act, which helps fund congregate meal programs, Taylor said. Those meals aren’t exactly perceived as comfort food diner patrons can expect.

“It’s not always a reason people come to a diner,” Taylor said. “They come to get macaroni and cheese.”

So far the program has been popular: In its first three weeks, people redeemed 45 meal tickets. Taylor said the diner sees between four and six participants a day. Many people come in pairs or trios to eat together.

“That’s exactly what we wanted to do,” Simmons said. “We wanted to allow them to have a positive social experience along with their meal.”

Among the people who were at the diner on the Thursday earlier this month were Steve and Patricia, who declined to give their last names. The couple try to come in twice a week.

“It gets us out of the house,” Steve said. “The food is wholesome.”

Usually, if they want to attend a congregate meal they make the drive to Bugbee in White River Junction or the Claremont Senior Center. The Thompson in Woodstock is also within driving distance. The Windsor Diner is a shorter drive for them, Patricia said.

“We order different meals so we can share,” she said, adding that that day’s shepherd’s pie special was particularly good.

After the COVID-19 pandemic emergency ended, the couple has still been a little reluctant to return to sit-down meals and coming to the Windsor Diner every week has helped that.

“I’m still kind of celebrating that we can get out and do this type of thing,” Patricia said.

One of the reasons Windsor was chosen for the pilot program is because it has the largest number of seniors without a congregate meal site in Senior Solutions’ coverage area, said Simmons. In 2020, 20.7% of the population of Windsor, or 778 people, were 65 or older, and three-quarters of them were single, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. By comparison, Woodstock, which has a senior center, had 573 seniors.

The Windsor Diner, with its central downtown location, made a lot of sense. Older adults live at nearby at Olde Windsor Village on State Street and the Village at Cedar Hill. “A lot of the seniors know it and like it so it was just a great match,” Simmons said.

Simmons is hoping that if the Windsor Diner program continues to be successful — and funding can be obtained — it can be expanded it to additional communities and restaurants.

“We’re looking at creating a lot of creative niche meal opportunities for seniors in areas where we simply don’t have regular congregate meals taking place,” Simmons said.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.