Lean times for JCC East Bay kosher lunch program

Florence Borkin has been eating lunches at the JCC East Bay for almost 30 years. During that time, the 98-year-old has made friends, taken classes and enjoyed many a hot meal through the center’s Kosher Lunch Program.

Now, however, due to increased costs, what many seniors view as an essential program is struggling to stay afloat.

Every Monday and Thursday, 52 weeks a year, seniors gather at the JCC in Berkeley to eat a kosher meal and kibbitz.

While the low-fat, low-sodium lunches — some hot, some cold — provide a third of the daily nutrients seniors need, a recent survey showed that more than 80 percent of the seniors attend not because of the food, per se, but because of the feeling of community.

Starting their salads at a recent lunch at the JCC East Bay are (from left) Leah Emdy, Annette Lys, Jeremy Lys, Gerald Weintraub, Ethel Murphy and Lloyd Morgan. photo/courtesy of the jcc east bay

“It gets people who do often live alone to leave their houses and engage [with others],” said Sally Flinchbaugh, executive director of the JCC East Bay.

But the program — which also includes meals on Jewish holidays such as Rosh Hashanah and Passover — costs $40,000 a year for the meals alone, Flinchbaugh said, and that doesn’t include staff and other costs associated with coordinating the program. Because of that, the program is in financial distress.

Each meal costs $10, and the seniors pay $7, Flinchbaugh said. She noted it would have been cheaper to make the meals non-kosher, but the program’s organizers felt that having kosher meals would be essential to maintaining the Jewish aspect of the program.

The higher costs came about when the JCC needed to change caterers. The first caterer charged $6.25 per meal, but stopped doing the lunches for budgetary reasons. The replacement caterer charges almost $4 more per hot meal.

In order to keep the program up and running, the JCC has launched a fundraising campaign. Emails, letter appeals and word of mouth have helped, Flinchbaugh said, as has a $12,000 grant from the Jewish Federation of the East Bay.

However, because of staff costs and the higher cost of food, the program is still $10,000 to $15,000 short of the amount necessary to sustain it for this current year, Flinchbaugh said, and if the money for this year can’t be raised, future years are at risk of being cut.

“This is ongoing,” Flinchbaugh said. “We have to raise the money every year.”

The program has been reduced and altered over the years. There used to be classes before and after every meal, but those have been gone for some time. The meals also used to be only traditional Jewish cuisine. Now the cuisines, while still kosher, are all over the map; pot roast is a staple, but other dishes include black bean chili, barbecued chicken and an African meat pie.

Despite the cutbacks and changes, the meals are nourishing and attendance is good, usually about 25 to 30 people per lunch — and 60 to 80 people for holiday meals.

And while there are other places in the Bay Area for seniors to eat free or subsidized lunches, the JCC’s program is kosher and inexpensive — and many Jewish seniors view it as essential. Some, like Borkin, have been attending for more than 10 or even 20 years.

“You make a lot of good friends,” Borkin said.


To donate to the JCC East Bay’s Kosher Lunch Program, visit www.bit.ly/oxCUfz or call (510)848-0237.