May 22, 2022

AmericanHummus

Food & Travel Enthusiast

West Jordan program pays local restaurants to feed seniors

West Jordan’s senior meal delivery service came at the right time for Janice Lamm. 

“Grandmas are expected to make certain things,” Lamm said. “Thanksgiving? Shrimp salad. Christmas? Cookies and cookies and cookies and cookies.”

The program was meant to be temporary, and Lamm was dismayed when it officially ended in January. 

But now, the city is preparing to restart what program manager Lisa Elgin described as a “wildly successful” initiative. The program was a win-win-win for seniors who needed food, businesses that needed customers, and a local delivery service that wanted to support the community.

“The people here have really appreciated it, especially some of the people that money is tighter for them than it is for me, and mine’s so tight I have to cut my pennies in half to get 2 cents worth,” Lamm said.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act money funds the program, which provides meals from area restaurants to West Jordan residents over 65. Preference goes to those in low- to moderate-income categories. 

“We have some funding — it’s just a matter of moving it around and being able to use it,” Elgin said. “It’s just a little bit tricky.”

Elgin says seniors won’t see a lot of differences in how the program runs or who qualifies, as most of the changes have been internal. 

“About by the middle (of the first round), we had all the kinks worked out and it was running really smoothly,” Elgin said. 

Janice Lamm prepares food for a meal at her home in West Jordan on Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2022. Lamm used Chefpanzee food delivery service during early COVID-19. West Jordan used federal pandemic relief money to create the program, which is open to anyone over the age of 65 residing within the city boundaries, with preference going to those in low- to moderate-income categories.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Running smoothly looked like roughly 6,500 meals being delivered to 99 seniors by the end of the 18-week program. Of those participants, 81 fell into the very low-income category, and 40 were people with disabilities.

Seniors weren’t the only group to benefit, though — most of the meals were provided by local West Jordan restaurants, which is where the program’s name, the Restaurant Assistance Grant, comes from.

“We had two goals in mind,” said West Jordan senior management analyst Jeremy Olsen. “One was obviously to provide meal deliveries to seniors so they wouldn’t have to go to a store or to a restaurant, but the other one was to help some of the restaurants that had lost business during the lockdown periods.”

The program isn’t currently accepting applications, but Elgin is hopeful to get the program running again in about two months. Participation will still only require proof of residency and a completed application from the city’s website. After completion, seniors choose the meals they’d like to receive. 

Restaurants apply to the program, create a menu and choose how to deliver the food. Then, after receiving $24,900 of West Jordan’s federal pandemic relief funds, the restaurants get to work feeding people. When they run out of funds, usually anywhere between six to nine weeks, the restaurants can reapply.

Past restaurants on the list have included Dairy Queen — a favorite of resident Lamm — Spudtoddos, Vegan Bowl and Sofia’s Doner Kebab Express.

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Azer Imranov, co-owner and operator of Sofia’s Doner Kebab Express, carves chicken at the restaurant in West Jordan on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

“We are very excited that this program came and it was created. I think that the program is very good,” Sofia’s Doner Kebab Express owner Nailya Ragimova said. “I hope that this will continue.”

Continuing to be a part of the community is the most rewarding part for Ragimova. The meal delivery program, along with other government assistance, helped her Turkish restaurant remain a West Jordan fixture. Now, Sofia’s Doner Kebab Express will be returning to the program.

Starting the senior meal program proved to be a challenge. Between staffing shortages that limited the number of restaurants that applied and with fewer seniors participating than Elgin had hoped, Elgin said the program basically took over her life. 

The biggest delay was in finding a suitable delivery service — Elgin originally tried Grubhub, Uber Eats and DoorDash to no avail. 

Luckily, a new option presented itself: A delivery service called Chefpanzee that only delivers food from local Utah businesses. For co-founder Indu Sudhakar, participating in the senior meal program is a way to hold true to Chefpanzee’s dedication to supporting Utah restaurants. 

“We’ve seen this a lot with the major delivery services where there’s hesitation if the monetary value is there,” Sudhakar said. “It makes me feel happy that we’re holding true to that part of our business and being able to be a part of opportunities like this.” 

Sudhakar said that Chefpanzee is still in the growth phase of the business, but a priority is charging a low commission rate from restaurants; while the typical commission rate for larger delivery services falls between 30% and 40%, Chefpanzee charges 10%. 

“I think we were lucky to find them when we did at the time,” finance liaison Olsen said. “Once they were able to work something out with the restaurants, then it finally became a feasible program.”

Sudhakar said Utah’s culture of supporting local was a “pleasant shock” and that she’d love to see something similar expand to other cities. 

“I think, honestly, it’s a product of living in Utah,” she said. “It’s just the friendliness.” 

Elgin said that Chefpanzee will be returning to the program to continue delivering. Meanwhile, after Elgin recovers from COVID-19, she’s hoping to “get right back up on” the program’s restart.  

“Planners don’t often get a lot of opportunity to feel really good about what they’re doing,” Elgin said. “This was an amazing opportunity. I loved actually getting out there.” 

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Nailya Ragimova, co-owner and operator of Doner Kebab Express, prepares a Sofia’s Doner Kebab full-size meal with the beef lamb option at the restaurant in West Jordan on Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News