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As noon approaches, finishing touches are put on lunch. A little basil is torn and tossed with thinly sliced yellow zucchini; a final adjustment is made to the day's fresh Garden Vegetable Soup — all as guests gather at the entrance to the dining room, chatting and waiting for friends before taking their seats. When three bells sound — two cowbells and a bike horn — lunch begins and guests, several wearing colorful paper tiaras, head to the tables where soup, three salads, hot dishes, a selection of beverages and a plateful of sugar cookies are offered.

The tiaras, along with colorful plastic hats for the men, signal those who are celebrating a birthday this month. The room is adorned with colorful "Happy Birthday" signs, and there are two beautifully decorated cakes.

This is the Cloverdale Senior Dining Cafe, one of 10 such cafes operated throughout the county by the Council on Aging's Meals on Wheels program. Up to 30 guests, most of whom are 60 or older, enjoy lunch Monday through Friday in Cloverdale.

"Cloverdale is the happening place, our shining star," says Jane Doroff, director of senior nutrition for the Council on Aging.

Ingredients from gardens

Under the guidance of Valerie Leitz, Cloverdale site manager for Meals on Wheels, cafe volunteers augment what the program provides. There's always homemade soup and green salad with homemade dressings made, in part, with ingredients harvested from two kitchen gardens in the back of the facility and two other gardens nearby.

These cafes offer more than a delicious, nutritious lunch. They offer the equally important opportunity for socializing, for seeing old friends, making new ones and enjoying the communion of the table.

Senior dining cafes also serve as staging areas for meal deliveries, which are organized before lunch and sent off about the time guests are sitting down. In Cloverdale, there are two routes, each handling 12 to 16 meals a day. Today, meals arrive chilled instead of hot, which gives clients the option to enjoy them in their own time. This also improves both the taste and nutritional value of the meals, which no longer must be kept hot during the long transport process from the central Santa Rosa kitchen to the staging kitchen and, finally, to homes.

This change has come along with an overall transformation of the food served to nearly 1,000 seniors each weekday. Well-known local chef Josef Keller, formerly of Josef's in Railroad Square, spent several months revising menus and recipes and retraining staff. He reduced the amount of canned foods used, added fresh herbs and seasonal produce from local purveyors and created a cafe-style brunch menu for Friday lunch.

"Everyone loves the changes," Doroff says.

More changes are in the works. Chef Charles Lindner recently joined the Council on Aging as director of kitchen development and operations, with a mission to increase revenues by making better use of the organization's large industrial kitchen.

Delightful desserts

His first project, which will be introduced next month, is an array of individual desserts that Meals on Wheels clients, dining cafe clients and the general public can order. The desserts, each one enough for an extremely generous single serving and plenty for two, include My Mother's Lemon Meringue Pie, Mother of All Brownies, Apple Brown Betty, Triple Chocolate Cake, Raspberry Creme Brulee and Whiskey Bread Pudding. Prices range from $4 to $6 and samples will be available sometime in August at the Council on Aging's booth at the Wednesday Night Market. Clients who order dessert will receive it with their next delivery or at the scheduled lunch.

With the new dessert program in place and Cloverdale thriving, the next focus will be on upgrading the dining cafe at Silvercrest Senior Center in Santa Rosa. Chef Maria Vieages, who moved to Sonoma County after losing her New Orleans home and restaurant to Hurricane Katrina, is heading up the transformation, which will soon offer several options in addition to the meal provided by the program.

"We hope to upgrade all our senior dining cafes," Doroff says, "and make them more cafe-like, with several choices at every meal."

Thirty years ago, she explains, more seniors came to the cafes than received meals at home. Today the reverse is true. On any given day, about 150 to 200 clients have lunch at a cafe while nearly 800 receive a home-delivered meal.

"Our big challenge is increasing cafe attendance," she says, adding that they are ready, able and eager to do so.

Rebutting misconceptions

To achieve this, the Council on Aging must dispel certain misconceptions about its programs. Although the food has improved dramatically, it still has a reputation as "institutional," like hospital food. The introduction of the new desserts should help on this front, as will word-of-mouth praise.

But there is also the perception that both Meals on Wheels and its companion dining cafes are targeted low-income programs, which is not the case. Neither program requires a means test and anyone 60 or older can participate. The home-delivery program is offered to anyone who, for whatever reason, cannot prepare their own meals. Clients may be recovering from surgery, they may be providing care for an ailing partner or they may be incapacitated for some other reason.

For more information about the Council on Aging, Meals on Wheels and senior dining cafes, to volunteer, to make a donation or to sign up for services, visit councilonaging.com or call 525-0143 from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays and from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m on Fridays.

Michele Anna Jordan writes several columns a week for the Press Democrat and contributes to Savor Wine Country and Santa Rosa magazines. She can be reached at michele@ micheleannajordan.com.