Gift allows seniors to get free, healthy food
The line of people waiting to get in to the Burlington Senior Center extends out the door every Wednesday afternoon from May through October. It looks like the opening night of the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But these seniors are waiting for fresh fruit and vegetables that they get for free at this indoor, pop-up farmers’ market. The mission is to make healthy food accessible to seniors who live on fixed incomes and who aren’t as mobile as they used to be. Thanks to substantial support from Digital Federal Credit Union to Lahey Hospital & Medical Center’s Community Relations Department, this farmers’ market will be around for a while.
“It’s huge,” said Marge McDonald, director of the Burlington Council on Aging. “Sometimes, it feels like people forget about the seniors. So for them to know somebody gave them a gift that large is really huge. I think it goes a long way to making them feel like they’re still part of society and still wanted and cared about.”
As part of a community relations initiative, Lahey started the farmers’ market to help the Burlington area’s growing senior population five years ago. And it’s still going strong.
Every week, starting at 12:30 p.m., the seniors sign in at the registration table, where they get a number. Marge calls people up in groups of three, while volunteers assist them in filling up their bags. On one day in August, there were boxes filled with squash, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes, corn and basil. The choices are different each week in order to give the seniors a variety of fresh food throughout the season.
“I love it,” said Fran Balestrier of Burlington. “I come all the time! The only time I ever eat fresh vegetables or fresh fruit is when I come here. I can’t go to the farm stands because they’re too expensive for me. And I’m only one person, so I don’t need a ton of things.”
A feeling of community
“Twenty, 21, and 22!” Marge called out as the seniors who gathered one recent Wednesday waited their turn.
But while they are all assigned numbers, they are not treated like a number. Volunteers greet every senior by name. “Hi, Kathleen!” a woman yelled out cheerily, with a wave as Kathleen Lopolito from Burlington walked by. Kathleen smiled and waved back, glad to see the volunteer who has helped her so many times this summer.
As the program has developed, organizers have noticed an added advantage for the seniors that they didn’t anticipate. They weren’t just getting healthy food — they were chatting and getting to know each other.
“I enjoy coming and it gets you out of the house,” said Kathleen.
“They’ll come and socialize, and new friendships are formed, which is really nice,” Marge explained.
Promoting a Healthy Lifestyle
There is also the added benefit of a healthy, home-cooked meal, according to Marge. She says getting fresh ingredients incentivizes the seniors to try out a new recipe instead of going for a pre-packaged or frozen meal.
“I love eggplant parmesan,” Fran said. “I get a small eggplant, it’s just enough for me, and it works!”
Kathleen brings her ingredients home to her husband. “He likes to look in the bag and be surprised,” she said, smiling. “We love the kale. I cook it, and then chop it up and sauté it with garlic and onions. It’s very good.”
“I’m very, very grateful that we have this,” Fran added. “I can’t believe we can come here every Wednesday and get fresh produce!”