About 11 a.m. every morning for the past month, Margarita Rodriguez, 88, originally of Cuba, arrives at the lunch room at Villa Aida Adult Center in Hialeah to eat with new friends.
“Food here is really good and service is divine,” said Rodriguez, who became a widow six months ago and who recently started participating in an art workshop promoted by the city. “The arts and crafts teacher suggested that I seek this help and the truth is that I’ve found so much warmth here.”
Rodriguez is one of more than 1,500 senior citizens in Hialeah’s public lunch program, which recently received a renewed state grant of $1 million.
Julio Ponce, director of the Hialeah Housing Authority, said that the grant will cover 1,120 lunches in 13 public kitchens, as well as the distribution of hot foods to another 380 seniors in their own homes.
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“For many people this program is of utmost importance because it’s the only meal they receive a day,” Ponce said. “But it’s also a program that stimulates them emotionally.”
State Reps. Jose Oliva, Manny Diaz Jr. and Bryan Avila and Sen. Rene Garcia helped secure the grant, Ponce said.
According to Ponce, this food supply program in Hialeah receives a $250,000 from the state each year. He noted that the budget started increasing thanks to the lobbying of the political group in Hialeah.
Ileana Sanabria, director of Social Services at HHA, said senior citizens receive rations of quality hot lunches daily. For the past two years, the lunches have been provided by Greater Miami Caterers Inc., which is headquartered in Miami.
“For the most part what we offer is typical Latin food,” said Sanabria. “But every six months we evaluate the menu with our nutritionist. For example, now we plan to change lasagna for tamal en cazuela, because the senior citizens themselves have asked for it.”
Mayor Carlos Hernandez said that in addition to the $1 million fund for the lunch program, Hialeah will receive a $500,000 grant to expand the Hialeah Educational Academy, located on 2590 W. 76 St.
The academy specializes in the formation of future police officers and firefighters, among other careers. The teachers are officials and City of Hialeah employees.
Arnie Alonso, Hernandez’s chief of staff, indicated that the project will procure more classrooms in that school, which will be able to take in a total of 800 students. Currently, the school has 615 students.
These state grants for Hialeah were upheld despite the fact that other funds solicited by other Florida communities were vetoed by Gov. Rick Scott last Tuesday.
“The fact that we didn’t have those resources cut off reflects the good relations between the governor, Mayor Hernandez and the groups of Hialeah legislators,” said Alonso.
In September 2014, during a visit to his campaign office on popular 49th Street, Scott complimented his followers in Hialeah with phrases in Spanish such as “Hialeah is No. 1,” and thanked them for their support toward his reelection as governor. Two months later, the Republican candidate won the polls.
But political chess doesn’t usually awaken the interest of the elderly during their meal times at Hialeah lunch rooms. For Cubans Gladis Sanchez, 81 years old, and Maria Rodriguez, 76 years old, the most important thing is for the lunch program to continue in operation.
“This is like our second home,” emphasized Sanchez.
For 80-year-old Daisy Hernandez, who has lived in Hialeah for three decades, the fundamental thing is for these kitchens to open their doors to the most needy.
“Here, we all eat well and we share good moments,” assures Hernandez, who was widowed almost eight years ago. “There’s even a few men in love with me, but I don’t want my daughter to find out because she’s very jealous.”
Follow Enrique Flor on Twitter @kikeflor