All Conway Wood wanted Thursday was a little salt with his asparagus, but those few grains resulted in a reprimand for the 94-year-old and a warning not to do it again.
“I’m terribly upset,” he said as he sat by himself on a bench outside the Paradise Hills Community Center West Annex. “I wasn’t bothering anybody. I salted my asparagus, and I put it (the salt packet) back in my pocket.”
What has Wood and some other seniors who take part in the city-run meal program fuming is a dictate barring them from adding salt to the lunches the center provides. Ketchup or mustard? Forget about it. A little salsa on those tacos? Nope.
Adding insult to injury, the city isn’t allowing the seniors at the Paradise Hills site to drink coffee with their lunch. The clampdown began this week, the seniors said.
The city of Albuquerque says its hands are tied because of requirements of the grant that provides funding for the meals.
“What’s the matter with the government here?” Wood asked. “Are they trying to rule the people with the budget?”
Patricia Paiz, who has been eating lunch at the Paradise Hills center for close to two years because she enjoys socializing with others, is also angry. She said drinking coffee with lunch and using salt and condiments on the meals had not been a problem until this week.
Paiz said they were told the rules were due to nutritional considerations. She said seniors were put on notice that if they were caught breaking the rules repeatedly, the meal site could be closed down.
Wood said he was initially told this week that he could salt his food as long as he didn’t pass it to anybody else. But on Thursday, Wood said, he was told it wasn’t allowed.
Virginia Rodriguez, the site director, declined to comment, saying only that she had been instructed not to.
The Paradise Hills Community Center West Annex is a Bernalillo County facility, but the meal program is run by the city of Albuquerque.
Anthony Romero, the associate director of the city’s Department of Senior Affairs, said the rule the seniors are complaining about has been in place for years.
“This is not a new policy at all,” he said, adding that the rule should have been followed all along because it’s one of the requirements of the grant that pays for the meals.
Romero said seniors are entitled to a free congregate lunch every day through the Older Americans Act. The city isn’t allowed to charge for the meal, but it can ask for a donation.
The federal grant funds are administered through the Area Agency on Aging, a state entity.
Romero said the meals must meet specific nutritional standards, so a nutritionist plans the menu. When seniors start adding salt and condiments to that meal, he said, the nutritional values are thrown off, and the city is no longer eligible to be reimbursed for the meal.
Not ‘condiment police’
“We’re not there to be the condiment police,” Romero said. But he said his department must be able to show that it is making a good-faith effort to adhere to the nutrition requirements.
Romero said that for many of the seniors who take part in the program, the lunches they receive at these sites around Albuquerque are the only meals they get each day. That, he said, is all the more reason to ensure that the meals being served are nutritious.
“I’d say the majority of folks who eat with us really are OK with that arrangement,” he said. “Our cooks do a fantastic job, and the meals are very good. They’re very, very good.”
Romero said that although the city must adhere to strict requirements when lunch is being served because of the grant implications, there’s flexibility during other periods, when, for example, coffee and cookies are served in the morning. Seniors who attend the Paradise Hills site are still able to drink coffee before 11:30 a.m.
To be clear, Paiz said she enjoys the meals that are served, but the sudden clampdown on salt and condiments and not being able to have coffee with lunch has left a bad taste in her mouth.
“I think all of us have earned the right to have a cup of coffee when we eat lunch,” she said, adding that the seniors themselves kick in their own money to buy coffee and supplies. She said they had also been bringing salt and pepper shakers and condiments to season the hot meals the city provides.
“They took all the salt and pepper shakers away from us,” Paiz said, her voice filled with indignation. “In addition, we had some condiments in the refrigerator – mustard, ketchup and salsa. Word came back that if the item does not come with the meal, we cannot put it on the food. So if we have dry beef tacos and no taco sauce packets, we can’t get our salsa and put it on our tacos.”
Separating seniors from their coffee and salt is bad enough, she said, but it’s much more than that.
“I don’t think what is being done is right. I think all of us deserve some dignity,” Paiz said. “We’re not asking the city to pay for our bad habits; we’re just asking them to let us enjoy what we’re willing to provide for ourselves.”
Besides, she added, if the city is so concerned about seniors’ eating healthy, why does it load lunches up with carbs – frequently serving potatoes, rice or noodles with tortillas or bread and often serving corn as part of the meal? And for dessert, she said, they were recently given cookies loaded with sugar and fat.
“For them to use being concerned about our health as their reason, then where are our green vegetables and our fresh fruits?” she asked. “How come every time we get a pear it’s covered in syrup?”