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Ocean County’s Senior Meal Programs Expand Greatly As Population Grows

Ocean County Administration Building (File Photo)

Ocean County Administration Building (File Photo)

Ocean County continues to be a haven for retirees, and as senior citizens are living longer with advances in medical science, more are residing at home – often alone. The county government, for years, has been one of the few in New Jersey is fully fund a senior meal program and will continue to expand it Wednesday when the county’s Board of Commissioners approves a multi-million dollar contract to provide the service.

The county’s $3.4 million contract with Community Services Inc., reviewed at a work session last week and due to be passed Wednesday, is one of several contracts that make up a larger package of allocations made to the county’s Senior Services department. The meals, the largest-ticket item, is also one of the most important, officials say.

“Home-delivered meals has been a growing need, and as well know it’s increasingly becoming more expensive and challenging to eat,” said Maria LaFace, director of the Senior Services office.

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The county expects to serve 324,000 meals in 2023, up from last year, with a greater emphasis on so-called “congregate” meal settings, where seniors are picked up by a bus and dropped off at a location – such as a town’s senior center – to enjoy lunch and interact with friends. Officials have said the need for these congregate settings – as opposed to the traditional “Meals on Wheels” delivery service – has become more important as the population of residents aged 80 and over living alone has grown quickly.

Both programs come with ancillary benefits – namely, social interaction at the congregate settings and a built-in “welfare check” when food is delivered. Those checks became crucial during the coronavirus pandemic when seniors were often reticent to leave their homes, and were often cut off from physical interactions with friends and family members.

The county began experimenting with congregate meal settings before the pandemic, but was forced to retreat back to the traditional delivery service once the virus began spreading. Now, the Senior Services staff is intent on not only bringing the congregate program back, but expanding it. Going into 2020, there were 2,000 participants in the congregate meal program, and by last year the number had grown to 9,000. In 2023, LaFace said, the county expects to top 10,000 participants.

“The home delivered meals and the congregate meals programs are truly the centerpiece of our senior programs,” Commissioner Joseph Vicari said.

In 2022, Ocean County, through its provider, delivered 307,450 meals. In addition, almost 10,000 meals were served at the congregate nutrition sites which are now open in Stafford Township, Waretown and with modified access in Brick and Jackson townships. Ocean County anticipates almost 324,000 meals to be home delivered in 2023.

“We saw the number of meals almost triple at the congregate nutrition sites last year,” Vicari said. “We anticipate those numbers to increase in [2023].”

This year, the county has benefited from funding derived from the federal American Rescue Plan expenditure, however officials realize those dollars are unlikely to return next year. The goal, LaFace said, is to “keep older adults in their homes and independent.” To that end, the county will look to expand the congregate meal settings for the long term.

“With the largest senior population in the state, close to 200,000, it’s imperative that our senior programs and services deliver positive results,” Vicari said.

The commissioners are due to pass 25 contracts with providers that fund about 50 different senior programs, which range from home repair programs to legal assistance for seniors facing financial challenges. Vicari encouraged seniors or their caregivers to contact the Ocean County Office of Senior Services at 732-929-2091 to determine what programs and services may be available.

“The office served over 40,000 residents last year,” Vicari noted. “It is a central clearing house for our senior programs. This is the best starting point for seniors in need of services.”

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