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Spotlight on Innovations and Achievements: Area Agency on Aging of Dane County

Learn how this Wisconsin AAA developed a program that provides older adults participating in the AAA's congregate nutrition program with the opportunity to dine at seven restaurants that offer a variety of menu options and dining times.

We're proud to highlight the award-winning work of the 2020 winners of n4a's Aging Innovations and Achievement Awards in this weekly spotlight feature. This week, we are focusing on the Area Agency on Aging of Dane County's My Meal—My Way Senior Dining program. The agency was a 2020 Aging Innovations Award winner in the Nutrition category. This is the final Innovations spotlight feature. Stay tuned for next week as we spotlight our 2020 Achievement winners! The 2020 AIA Awards were made possible thanks to the support of Centene.
 
The purpose of congregate meals has always been twofold: to provide critical nutrition and social engagement opportunities to older adults. When the number of older adults dining at Area Agency on Aging of Dane County senior dining sites declined 18 percent from 2009 to 2014, staff began exploring new options.

The My Meal–My Way model, a public-private partnership between the AAA of Dane County's congregate nutrition sites and seven local restaurants, was launched in the spring of 2015 after the AAA of Dane County recruited restaurants, negotiated meal costs and pilot-tested the model. The program offers a choice of breakfast and lunch menu options at restaurants featuring a variety of cuisines and with locations in rural, suburban and urban settings across the AAA's planning and service area. The meals are provided during two-to-four-hour windows, which allows participants to choose what, when, where and with whom they will dine. And because no reservations are required, the model offers attendees choice, intergenerational dining and flexibility.
 
Each My Meal–My Way site has a nutrition program site manager, either staff, a program manager or a trained volunteer, who greets participants, completes all paperwork and receives any meal donations. The AAA of Dane County provides transportation to each site. Restaurants are paid $5 or $6 per meal, which includes gratuity, with the restaurants assuming the costs associated with the facility, equipment, meal prep and labor. From 2015–2019, participation in the congregate meal program grew by 1,040 new diners (22 percent), congregate meals served increased by 15,624 (15 percent) and donations increased to $544,000 from $422,000. The model has inspired replication in nine other counties throughout the state.
 
Following the March stay-at-home order due to COVID-19, My Meal–My Way locations were closed to the public. But within one week of closure, the My Meal–My Way dining locations adapted their operations to provide several takeout meals per day in each location. One location also began preparing more than 300 meals for a food pantry, where older adults can pick up the meals along with a weekly food box. Additionally, My Meal–My Way staff provide essential safety and hygiene supplies to participants, including masks, sanitizers and toilet paper, as well as activity bags with coloring supplies, craft kits and information on online exercise activities to help combat social isolation. Participants have expressed how much they appreciate seeing familiar faces and receiving great, nutritional food while following physical distancing guidelines. During May 2020, 18,463 meals were provided through My Meal–My Way, which also helped the local restaurants that were closed due to COVID-19 receive income and remain viable.
 
Since its inception, this program has inspired nine other WI counties, as well as other states, to replicate the model. Replication generally takes six months. AAA of Dane County staff are available to provide technical assistance and marketing materials.
 
The My Meal—My Way program is also highlighted in the engAGING Practices: Best Practices for Helping Older Adults Stay Socially Engaged publication from engAGED: The National Resource Center for Engaging Older Adults (administered by n4a). This resource highlights best practices implemented by 11 programs to help others within the Aging Network enhance social engagement among older adults in their communities. Questions? Contact Angela Velasquez, velasquez.angela@countyofdane.com.
 
For more information about the 2020 winners, see the press release and read the book of winners! To read about past winners and find other best practices for your agency to consider, visit our Best Practices Clearinghouse page.

Interested in receiving an AIA Award for your agency's program? The 2021 AIA Awards nominations process is now open. Read our nominations process guide and consider submitting some of your programs before the March 26 deadline.

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