Food for Senior Citizens

SAN FRANCISCO–A few days ago at a news conference in Los Angeles, economist John Kenneth Galbraith and his conservative counterpart, Alan Greenspan, replied similarly to a question put by a reporter. They both said that there was little an individual could do about this inflation.

Apparently, some people in California disagree. Two former housewives here in the Bay Area have established a food distribution service for elderly consumers that is saving them from 30 to 50 percent of the retail price of fresh fruits, vegetables and meat/poultry.

Started in 1975, the Food Advisory Service (FAS) now serves more than 7,000 elderly people in the Bay Area by distributing the food to 85 minimarkets (community centers or meeting halls). The food is bought directly from wholesalers and growers. FAS has started a similar service in the Los Angeles area.

The founders of this fast-growing alternative marketing program are Pat Coates and Sandi Piccini. Four years ago they were busy parents, raising children and organizing bridge, golf and tennis groups. Then one day they read a newspaper article that appalled them. “Senior Citizens Forced to Eat Dog Food,” the headline read. That jolted them into action.

Food is sold to the elderly at the same price at which it is purchased. To keep overhead costs down, selling hours are limited and announced beforehand so that customers can plan their arrival. There are four warehouses and one large office and storage facility in San Francisco. Twenty-one part- and full-time employees staff the growing operation.

The question that immediately comes to mind is: How do they pay the overhead expenses? Coates and Piccini developed an ingenious response. They started a business called Gallery Faire which employs the disabled, the elderly and ex-offenders in labor-intensive tasks such as hand-packaging airline stereo headsets or assembling components on small skis. At their Brisbane, Calif., facility some 77 employees can be seen collating, sorting, bagging and pressing materials under contract for other Bay Area companies. A $330,000 Comprehensive Employment and Training Act grant helps provide on-the-job training for people hitherto considered “unemployable.”

Profits from Gallery Faire are used to pay the expenses of the Food Advisory Service. Thus, a useful employment program is helping keep down the cost of living for hard-pressed senior citizens. Nutritional advisers also help make sure that the food selected is nutritious.

Another benefit of the minimarkets is that elderly people are encouraged to ask for help with any problems they may have. Since elders participate in setting up the food, posting prices and running checkouts and weighing stations, a dialogue and friendliness develops out of the purchasing process. Recipe books are distributed and elders are encouraged to cook at home with their fresh, non-processed foodstuffs. This advice has led to a feeling of self-accomplishment and heightened interest among the customers in healthful preparation of food.

All this continues not to be easy. There are many human and technical problems that must be resolved all the time. But Coates and Piccini are refining ways of succeeding and soon will put out a procedural manual for people around the country who wish to start a similar program. (Write to Food Advisory Service, 185 Valley Drive, Brisbane, Calif. 94005.)

A new Harris Poll reports that more people are increasingly emphasizing informed self-reliance and organized consumer efforts to cope with high prices and poor product quality. This public opinion trend is supported by a rising number of cooperative-type food-buying groups. In California, such activity is about to become a movement. For example, a Santa Clara University student public interest group has just helped open a bilingual food co-op for low-income people. And as anyone winding through the Golden State these days knows, that’s not the only example.

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