During these stressful times of COVID-19, it’s nice to know there are plans in place to help our most vulnerable.

One is called Great Plates Delivered, which has just been renewed. It’s a program established to provide meals to people 65 and older who may be homebound during this pandemic. Those with specific high-risk conditions between the ages of 60-64 may also qualify. Availability is for Lodi seniors who meet income and risk requirements.

Geno Cassella, along with his brother Franco, are owners of the Brick House on School Street. This restaurant is one of three providers selected for Great Plates Delivered in Lodi. Two others that have been chosen are The Village Coffee Shop and The Dancing Fox. Meals are free to those who qualify.

Funding is provided by FEMA (75%), the state of California (18.5%) and the City of Lodi at 6.5%. Despite budget restraints, the Lodi City Council has felt it imperative to continue its fractional financial support for at-risk seniors.

Great Plates Delivery was scheduled to cease operations in the middle of July. But due to the unexpected upsurge in coronavirus cases and new lockdowns ordered by the state’s chief executive, government officials decided to extend the program through Aug. 9.

Additional extensions may be issued depending upon circumstances.

Three meals per day are provided for qualified participants. Meals are prescheduled for 14 days with two-week cyclical repeats. Nutritious and healthy guidelines are in place to ensure excellent and adequate meals.

Recipients are not allowed to choose which restaurant will deliver their meals. These are assigned on a random basis and “who gets whom” is simply by chance with “no substitutes.”

Geno Cassella tells me he is doing around 75-100 customers per day through Great Plates Delivered. This plan not only is a lifeline for seniors, but has helped maintain the solvency of his business, and most of all, keep his entire workforce employed.

“A number of them do our deliveries,” he said. “We take the utmost care to make sure sanitary conditions are maintained from the preparation of the meals to front door home delivery.”

Geno believes there are around 350-400 people receiving services. Delivery times are from 7:30-9 a.m. (both breakfast and lunch), and dinner is from 4:30-6 p.m.

The logistics of keeping everything straight is quite complicated. But Cassella, a University of California, Davis business graduate and former Fortune 500 Corporate executive, along with his lead administrator Nikki Rasmussen, have managed to keep things organized and flowing smoothly.

Geno is also able to keep the operations of his regular restaurant open for business with outside seating, as well as takeout and delivery for everyday customers. At the present time, only dinners available for the general public.

It’s been tough for all restaurant owners to deal with, “Now you’re open, now you’re not” edicts coming from the governor’s office — especially on employees.

But Cassella takes each new challenge with a smile and every situation with solutions to solve whatever comes his way. So far, he has been amazingly flexible and successful with his approaches.

Those who feel they may qualify for Great Plates Delivery should contact the LOEL Center in Lodi at 209-369-1591. The center can also be accessed by Internet at meals@loelcenter.net.

The applicant will receive a questionnaire to determine eligibility. Once the process is completed, Cassella reports things move rather quickly. A senior could be approved on Monday and be receiving meals by Wednesday.

Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer.

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