They're known as the "Lunch Bunch," a tightly knit cluster of senior citizens who seem more like playful siblings than friends. They meet in Zephyrhills on weekdays for games, a good meal and a hearty laugh.
Their gathering spot is the First Church of the Nazarene, where Pasco's County's Elderly Nutrition program serves up a free meal.
"These days, who can afford to go to restaurants?" said Becky Hubbart, 81, who is among about 30 seniors who eat there daily. That number swells to 100 a day when the snowbirds are in town.
But this month, the Lunch Bunch got word that the Elderly Nutrition Program needs a new place in Zephyrhills. The group has to leave by July 8, and so far hasn't found a suitable new site.
It seems the economic downturn has put a crunch on the church's finances. And after two years of allowing the senior group to gather on weekdays, for four hours in the air-conditioned auditorium for free, they had to end their contract with the Elderly Nutrition program.
"We are stretched," said the Rev. Gary Larson, the newly appointed senior pastor of the church.
Awhile back, before Larson came on board, the church discussed charging the county a fee to recover the cost of running the lights and electricity for the elderly meals.
With countywide budget cuts, however, the program couldn't afford to pay any fees. Larson said the church gave the group 30 days to move, then extended the grace period to three months.
The church simply can't afford to host the Elderly Nutrition group for free, Larson said.
"Overall in our economy, everybody has had to cut back, and we're no different," he said.
County officials say they understand everyone is on tight budgets.
"The church has been very, very gracious to have us here to support us," said Rob Kravabloski, who oversees four of the elderly dining sites, including the one in Zephyrhills.
The meals add up: In May, the program fed more than 600 square meals to those ages 60 and older. And that was in Zephyrhills alone, said Adey Reyes, who heads Pasco County's community services division.
The county has seven other dining sites, including ones in Dade City and Land O'Lakes.
The program has no income restrictions for participants, but most in the Lunch Bunch are on fixed incomes. Some are widows and widowers who simply don't cook. So this free lunch means everything, Hubbart said.
In late April, the Elderly Nutrition program asked the Zephyrhills City Council for help relocating the program. The county's first pick was Alice Hall Community Center, in the heart of the city. But there are so many local groups that already meet there, it would be a challenge to block off four hours every weekday for the Elderly Nutrition program, said City Manager Steve Spina.
Spina showed Gabe Papadopolous, the Elderly Nutrition program director, a couple of other city buildings to consider, but they didn't work out.
"For a program of that size to not expect to pay is unrealistic," Spina said. "It's going to be difficult to find some place for free."
Last Wednesday, a couple dozen seniors sat at round tables at the church dining on cheeseburgers and baked beans after getting a letter about the location issue from the program's director.
"I was sick for two months and I thought I was going to go crazy," said Marilyn Gidney, 73, who looks forward to the free lunch and chit-chat. "I missed the camaraderie. I don't want to see this site close down. It's too important to too many of these people."
If no alternate location is found soon, Reyes says, they'll consider moving the Zephyrhills program to the Dade City location and offer two separate servings to accommodate the large, combined group, she said.
But such a move would be inconvenient for the older Zephyrhills set, many of whom don't drive and rely on carpooling and rides from family and friends to get to the church in Zephyrhills.
Reyes said it's unlikely the program will stay at Larson's church. So the search continues for a free location in Zephyrhills to host the Elderly Nutrition program.
"It's like a life support system here," Cora Nyvall, 62, said.
Ebony Windom can be reached at email@example.com.