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March 6, 2013

The SAGE Center: addressing nutritional challenges of older LGBT New Yorkers

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Sarah Savino,The SAGE Center Program Manager
The following is a guest post by Sarah Savino, The SAGE Center Program Manager and Al Rosenberg, The SAGE Center Food Service Coordinator. This article was originally published by The National Foundation to End Senior Hunger  for their Rooftops newsletter.

One of the best times of day at The SAGE Center, the nation’s first full-time senior center for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people, is dinner time. Our Great Room fills up each weeknight with laughter and conversation from the LGBT older people who visit our center, as staff and volunteers set up the evening’s meal.

Housed in a beautifully renovated, loft-like space with views over New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood, The SAGE Center is a wonderful space for LGBT older people to gather. The early dinner is at the core of The SAGE Center Healthy Food Program, our nutritional plan designed to meet the specific needs of LGBT elders. The SAGE Center, which began serving meals in January 2012, offers an outstanding program of classes and events for a community with a range of needs – from those seeking fun and companionship in a culturally diverse setting, to those who face severe economic and nutritional challenges.  The SAGE Center Healthy Food Program is designed to welcome them all.

The New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) estimates that more than 32% of older adults in NYC are living in poverty and among senior center users the rate is higher. DFTA’s data also tracks the statistics for SAGE constituents who use social service programs: 35% live on less than $10,000 a year and a full 70% live on less than $20,000. And since LGBT older adults are less likely to access mainstream senior centers, they are at greater risk for a variety of health challenges, including hunger and poor nutrition.

To address this significant and growing need among LGBT older New Yorkers, we introduced The SAGE Center Healthy Food Program. The program provides not only an early dinner, but also nutritional assessments, educational seminars, greenmarket initiatives and—coming soon—a food pantry that will provide dry and canned goods for SAGE constituents to take home. 

The daily meal, a typical senior center offering, was the first food program we implemented. At the request of our constituents, we decided to serve an early dinner at The SAGE Center. One advantage of this is that those constituents who still work part- or full-time have the opportunity to attend the meal. And for some constituents, the early dinner meal time means they can have lunch at another senior center, and then join their LGBT peers for a meal in the evening.

Our on-site, catered hot meal is offered five evenings a week and is designed by nutritional experts to meet the highest standards of healthy living, particularly for adults over 60. It is well balanced, with low salt and high fiber. We offer various seasonings (but no salt!) so that diners can spice up their meals as they like. On Fridays, we also offer a chilled meal that constituents can take home to enjoy over the weekend.

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Al Rosenberg Preparing Dinner
Nutritional assessments are another key offering of our center. Newcomers to The SAGE Center are assessed for benefits and entitlements based on income and other factors.  This model allows us to recommend individuals for the food pantry, nutritional counseling and a transportation subsidy program. Some participants receive vouchers from DFTA, which allow them to buy $20 worth of locally grown produce from Greenmarkets throughout the city.

To further support the nutritional needs of LGBT older adults, The SAGE Center Healthy Food Program has focused on providing educational seminars.  Recently, counselors from the Cornell Cooperative Extension conducted an eight-week nutrition workshop focused on wellness, healthful eating and active living. They covered everything from reading food labels, to recipes and cooking demonstrations. At our SAGE Harlem location, we offered an eight-week healthy eating program this year in partnership with Visiting Nurse Service of New York (VNSNY). This course was taught by a nurse who instructed participants on how to effectively shop and eat healthfully while on a budget.

Throughout our first year of operation, The SAGE Center has become a fixture for LGBT older New Yorkers—providing a safe space to socialize, eat meals, and celebrate our shared experiences and history. We faced our first major challenge this past fall when Hurricane Sandy devastated New York City, causing wide-spread destruction and leaving much of the city, including hundreds of SAGE participants, without transportation, power or water for many days.  During this period, The SAGE Center was not able to receive regular food deliveries from our caterer. However, we were determined to keep the doors open, knowing that many of our constituents were without power of any kind. We set about buying food where we could and sent out the word that The SAGE Center would reopen for lunch; we were one of the only places in the neighborhood that had power, heat and hot food. Our constituents were hugely grateful; some said it was the first hot meal they had had in several days. It was a beautiful to see our community come together in spite of terrific odds—and a proud moment for all of us at The SAGE Center.

The SAGE Center is generously funded in part by the Department for the Aging (DFTA).

Comments

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We were very thankful that the SAGE Center provided meals during Sandy, as we were without electricity and heat for six days. We also like the chance to meet friends and to make new ones -- and have a hot meal -- at the weekday early dinners.

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