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In rural Hillsborough, restaurants and food trucks help keep seniors fed

The county's Silver Platter program delivers hot meals to seniors in Ruskin and other southern and eastern parts of the county.
Marysol Rodriguez puts on glove before delivering meals to a senior on July 1 in Ruskin. Rodriguez is a delivery driver for the Silver Platter program, which provides hot meals to seniors. She delivers to more than 20 addresses as part of her route.
Marysol Rodriguez puts on glove before delivering meals to a senior on July 1 in Ruskin. Rodriguez is a delivery driver for the Silver Platter program, which provides hot meals to seniors. She delivers to more than 20 addresses as part of her route. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]
Published Jul. 10, 2020

Marysol Rodriguez puts on her gloves and checks that the takeout meals are properly stacked in her trunk. She’s on her first delivery of the Wednesday afternoon for Hillsborough County’s Silver Platter program, which provides hot meals to home-bound seniors.

Rodriguez delivers to more than 20 addresses as part of her route. Today, the meal is green beans, sweet potatoes and chicken — something she calls “Southern with a twist” — prepared by the Mr. B’s Southern Cuisine food truck.

The coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic woes have worsened so-called food insecurity among seniors in Hillsborough County, officials say. And some who were able to visit local food banks or attend community meals are concerned about leaving their homes for fear of exposure to the virus.

For many, the food deliveries are more than sustenance. They’re check-ins from the outside world. On Rodriguez’s first visit a few weeks before, she found a senior recipient at home on the floor and called 911.

One or two nights a week, the Silver Platter program delivers restaurant-quality meals to clients served by the county’s Department of Aging Services, said director Tracy Gogichaishvili. Some receive the new hot meal service in addition to boxed food they get from the county. Others are receiving meals for the first time.

There are no income qualifications; only that the seniors must be 60 or older, she said. When there is a waiting list, seniors in greatest need receive priority.

Before the coronavirus struck, the county was providing meals to about 3,000 seniors. Aging Services operated 26 dining centers that served and delivered food made by GA Foods, said Mary Jo McKay, nutrition and wellness manager for Aging Services.

In mid-March, the county converted the seniors who attended congregate dining sites to home-delivered meals, because of coronavirus concerns, Gogichaishvili said.

The Silver Platter meals, prepared by local restaurants and food trucks, are in addition to that. The number of seniors receiving meals from Aging Services has grown to about 3,900, and 572 of them also receive Silver Platter meals.

“It’s been a tremendous increase in the need,” Gogichaishvili said.

Silver Platter is offered especially to those living in rural areas where food delivery options are scarce.

“If you look at the eastern and southern part of Hillsborough County, there’s fewer restaurants in those areas, so that’s really the area that we try to target, particularly with the food trucks,” Gogichaishvili said.

“It’s a change in the meals that they’re having every day and a safety check by a delivery driver,” she said. “It just gives them a little something extra to support them staying safe at home.”

Regina Walsh knows how hard that is. The 60-year-old has a disability and lives in a 55-plus mobile home community in Riverview.

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“Where I am, I’m having problems getting food out to me,” she said. “I’m still having to go to the store, and I’m terrified out there. I really am.”

Pandemic-level prices haven’t helped, either. Walsh used to make her monthly $162 in food stamps last a month. She’d make each meal last a few days. She’d stretch a bag of rice or noodles.

“When the pandemic hit and the prices went so high, I didn’t have enough to get food for myself,” she said.

So a month and a half ago, Walsh signed up for both the regular senior food deliveries and Silver Platter.

Every two weeks, she gets two boxes of frozen meals — enough for one meal a day — plus juices, desserts, fruit cups, milk and crackers. And every Monday and Wednesday evening, she gets a hot meal from Silver Platter. It’s enough to feed her for the whole month.

“The meal itself is delicious,” she said. On Monday, it was quiche.

“I couldn’t believe it,” she said.” I was shocked.”

The county started with 160 Silver Platter clients in the Ruskin and Wimauma area and has expanded to reach 572 clients throughout the county, Gogichaishvili said. Tampa Bay Food Trucks, a local association, coordinates the food deliveries and does background checks on the drivers who drop off meals using their own cars.

The county’s staff dietitian ensures that menu items meet state dietary guidelines, Gogichaishvili said. And the meals rotate, so seniors don’t get the same meal twice in the same week.

A host of local restaurants provide meals, including Michelle Faedo’s Mission BBQ in Temple Terrace, Mission BBQ in Brandon and Fred’s Market in Riverview. Food trucks include Dave’s Jukebox Diner, Asian Variety Cocos and Mr B’s.

In addition to helping seniors, the program also helps food businesses hard hit by pandemic-related closures, Gogichaishvili said. Aging Services uses funding from the Families First Act and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“It was kind of a symbiotic relationship that benefited all parties,” she said.

Ninkia Green places a piece of chicken in a to-go bowl to be delivered to a senior resident on July 1 in Ruskin. Green is the co-owner of Mr. B’s food truck and made 110 meals that were delivered to seniors as part of the Silver Platter program started by Hillsborough County.
Ninkia Green places a piece of chicken in a to-go bowl to be delivered to a senior resident on July 1 in Ruskin. Green is the co-owner of Mr. B’s food truck and made 110 meals that were delivered to seniors as part of the Silver Platter program started by Hillsborough County. [ JONAH HINEBAUGH | Times ]

The county anticipates having enough funding to take the program through December.

“But if we need to expand, that will shorten the time frame,” she said.

Hillsborough County seniors can call (813) 272-5250 to enroll in the lunch program. Staff will contact eligible seniors for the dinner meals.

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