By Rich Place

“Come and get it!”

Kathy Lipka’s call to let those at the Concord Senior Center know lunch was ready was pretty much spot on — right at noon as advertised.

More than a dozen seniors had gathered — many of them fresh off an exercise class — because of the hot, fresh meal offered, but most took time first to finish conversations they were in with others around the tables before coming up and getting their plate.

“We need a dinner bell,” joked Lipka, one of three paid staff members with the program. The others — program manager Nancy James and staff member Sue Borst — are aided by a small handful of volunteers.

The Erie County Stay Fit Dining Program hosts meals on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays at the Concord Senior Center, located just off Waverly Street on Commerce Drive. The program gives seniors the opportunity to eat a fresh meal but also, and perhaps just as importantly, a way to meet and interact with friends and neighbors.

“You meet so many wonderful people,” said Lipka, who struck up brief conversations with nearly every senior who walked up to the counter last Thursday for their plate of chili, a serving of California vegetable blend and a piece of cornbread.

“Here a few years ago there were three or four that passed (away) and it was like they were my family,” said James. “I really felt bad when they passed.”

“They become family,” Lipka added.

The execution of serving a lunchtime meal around noon nearly on a daily basis is a task that begins much before the Showcase Showdown is overheard on the television broadcasting “Price is Right” in the background. In fact, it could be said it begins before many have eaten breakfast.

James arrives at the Concord Senior Center around 7:30 a.m. to receive the food from a driver who brings it from Buffalo. It often comes frozen, and preparation begins with putting the meat in the oven to start thawing.

“Sometimes I prepare some of the salad before the girls get in here and they pick up some of the other stuff I haven’t gotten to,” said James, adding some of the time is also dedicated to setting up the room and getting things ready. “Oh yes, my time is utilized.”

Other staff come in around 9:30 a.m. and volunteers arrive about an hour or so later.

For the team of staff members and volunteers, getting the food prepped and ready for the roughly 20 seniors who take advantage of the program has become a way of life.

“She’s my buddy,” Lipka said, putting her arm around James’ shoulders. “It’s just fun. I enjoy it. The fun of getting out of the house and being busy.”

James agreed. “If I didn’t do this, I would sit in my rocker at home and just be looking out the window,” she said. “I wouldn’t have any sense of accomplishment.”

Borst joined the staff recently and said she enjoys the job because “it gets me up and out.”

And then there’s the fellowship with those who show up for the lunches. While chatting last week, Lipka paused to say hello to many who walked in the door, including a guest named Carl who has been attending the lunches for more than 25 years in their various locations to another gentleman who brought in cookies for others to enjoy.

“You’re going to make everybody so happy,” she told him. “Thank you.”

As guests chat away during the lunchtime hour, the staff and their volunteers — which on Thursday included JoAnn Feuz, one of the lead volunteers, and Morgan Nellis — sit down and enjoy the meal with everyone else. Then comes cleanup, with the staff usually leaving around 2 p.m.

The Concord Senior Center became the site for the county’s Stay Fit Dining Program after its completion about two years ago. The Concord Nutrition Site had bounced around in its more than 25-year history, including the Salem Lutheran Church and the fire hall, among others.

The menu is published each week in the Springville Times.

To participate in the lunches, guests or their spouse must be 60 years of age or older and the suggested donation is $3, although no one is denied a meal if they are unable to contribute. Reservations are required 48 hours in advance and can be made by calling 592-2741.