Together again: Alexandria Senior Center restarts group meals

Meals came to a screeching halt in March 2020 as COVID gained a foothold in Minnesota.

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Diane Alveshere of Alexandria beams while waiting to be served during the first group meal in nearly three years at the Alexandria Senior Center. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)
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ALEXANDRIA — Head cook Janet Baker threw her arms open wide to the dozen-or-so diners sitting at two round tables at the Alexandria Senior Center.

"Welcome back!" she exclaimed.

It was Thursday, Jan. 12, nearly three years since the senior center had last served lunch in-person. Meals came to a screeching halt in March 2020 as COVID gained a foothold in Minnesota, particularly targeting the elderly and those with weakened immune systems. Throughout the community, elders stayed behind closed doors, seeing family members through windows or via computer screen. In Douglas County, 133 died, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Being able to eat together indicates how far society has come since those uncertain early days of the pandemic. And even now, things are not quite back to normal. Before COVID, meals were served Monday-Friday at the senior center and drew up to 40 diners on busy days. This time, meals are only served on Thursday for now, Baker said. Ten people signed up for the Jan. 12 meal, but as people wandered in and noticed the food, she ended up serving 15. Normally, people have to register for meals, but she's operating with some flexibility as things get going again.

She served the same food that she sends out for Meals on Wheels — Swiss steak, mashed potatoes and gravy, a vegetable mix, and an apple.


Diners sat at two round tables. Some bowed their heads and said grace before lifting their forks. The meal costs $8 per person to prepare, but the nonprofit company that Baker works for, Nutrition Services, Inc., gets a federal subsidy, so if you're 60 or older, you pay only $4.

"It's so reasonable," said piano teacher Diane Alveshere of Alexandria, 89.

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Some of the diners at the first group meal in nearly three years at the Alexandria Senior Center. (Karen Tolkkinen / Echo Press)

Conversation touched on COVID, and long haulers, on the Senior Center's possible move to the YMCA. They noticed that someone's hair was longer. They noticed there were fewer men at the meal. They buzzed approvingly over the menu for the next week, Jan. 19, which was pork loin.

Juanita Hughes, who lives between Osakis and Long Prairie, and who had come to play bridge, praised Baker's cooking.

"They're limited on spices but she makes it taste good," she observed.

"You get good food, and it's a lot," said Marlene Lorsung, one of the few diners who had eaten there before the pandemic. "I usually take some home."

Alveshere said she had lost her husband, Cliff, last February after 31 years of marriage. She hadn't been eating as well as she should, she said, and she knew that she could easily become a hermit if she didn't get out.

The threat of COVID or other diseases couldn't keep her away.


"There's so many germs floating around," she said. "You can become so paranoid that you can isolate and that's not what God intended us to be."

Group meals, or congregate dining, as the nonprofit calls them, were going to start twice before. It was postponed once when Douglas County became one of the nation's COVID hotbeds, and again last September when the nonprofit decided it was better to wait. The county has now not seen a COVID death since the last week of 2022.

Baker said she doesn't know if the meals will return to a Monday-Friday schedule.

"We will play it by ear," she said. "We're in new waters here."

Reporter Karen Tolkkinen grew up in Plymouth, Minnesota, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a journalism degree in 1994, and was driven by curiosity to work her way around the United States.
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