Dinner à la Heart: How Sharing a Meal with Friends Supports Older Adults Benefiting from IOA’s Social Programs

A few years ago, we profiled MFK Fisher, one of America’s greatest writers, who spent the last decades of her peripatetic life in the Bay Area. She was once asked why she wrote so much about food and eating, and she responded:

“The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I wrote of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it…and then the warmth and richness and fine reality of hunger satisfied…and it is all one.”

She wrote of food, and more importantly, she wrote of eating. She wrote of sitting around a table and breaking bread in the spirit of adventure and joy with the ones you love. That’s inspiring, and beautiful. Looking at it that way makes the simple act of going to a restaurant an exercise in living poetry. It is with that spirit in mind that Institute on Aging puts on our Dinner à la Heart program each year, where hundreds of our community supporters go out, share tables, and dine with each other at the Bay Area’s best restaurants.

It’s a celebration of food, of community, and of the adventurous life spirit of trying new things. Because a warm dish is the warmth of life. 

Dinner à la Heart: Bringing the Bay’s Bites Together

It’s hard to overestimate the success of Dinner à la Heart. This February, over 550 IOA supporters met in 75 different restaurants across the Bay. People go out as friends, or with people they haven’t even met. Our list of participants keeps growing, as does the list of restaurants.

For participating restaurants, such as Swan’s Oyster Bar and Sam’s Grill, this has become something of a tradition, joined by new places like Boulevard, Monsieur Benjamin, and Palm House. For the participating restaurants, the event is an opportunity for exploration beyond their daily menu offerings. Most plan out a prix fixe for participants, a meal specially designed for them.

This year, we also added Lunch a la Heart, which is a great chance for anyone who has trouble going out at night to participate if they can’t make the Dinner à la Heart itself. The Lunch was extremely successful, and we will be making it part of the al la Heart program for years to come.

Cooking up Dinner à la Heart

A project this big doesn’t happen by itself. Dinner à la Heart just celebrated its 34th-anniversary thanks to our amazing network of volunteers, the lifeblood of IOA. Volunteers help find the restaurants, promote the event, sell tickets, coordinate groups, make reservations, and help older adults get to their feasts.

This work is inspiring—and it’s multigenerational. One of our favorite stories is that the daughter of an initial volunteer is now a long-time dedicated leader of the volunteer effort. She was moved by the work that was done by her mother in the past, and wanted to be a part of it as well. She saw how she could make a difference in people’s lives, and so rolled up her sleeves and joined in.

Of course, the work has its benefits as well. We also spend quite a bit of time, usually starting in October, trying to find new places to eat, which involves going out and having great meals. It’s a struggle, but someone has to do it. Going out to find restaurants always reminds us that San Francisco and the Bay Area have a truly remarkable foodie culture. And that’s sort of the point of the whole event.

Celebrating Food, Friendship, and Community in the Bay

Whenever you go out to eat in San Francisco, whether it’s a trendy new fusion joint where well-dressed people are taking pictures of their meals before diving in or an old-fashioned steakhouse where intimate dinners are happening over candlelight, you see the same things: friendship and food and love inextricably intertwined.

That’s part of the culture, and that’s what we’re celebrating with Dinner à la Heart. Going out to eat is different than eating at home. It’s an event. We understand the importance of older adults eating healthy meals, but this isn’t that, exactly. It’s about the event itself. It’s about community.

Eating alone can lead to depression in older adults, a debilitating condition on its own, and one that can create other physical and mental health issues down the line. That’s why we encourage group meals, and eating with others. It stimulates conversation. It challenges you to learn about new people, and to practice empathy. It creates the conditions for connection. These are all important to maintaining a healthy life at any age, but especially as you grow older.

Going out for a meal invokes all of these ideas, and it means risking something new. It could mean a new neighborhood, a new restaurant, a new meal. Something on the menu that catches your eye and dares you to try. Your food comes out, and you have an experience you never had. It’s exciting, and it is the exact same mental process as meeting someone for the first time, and experiencing their lives through their love and stories and friendship.

I think that’s what MFK Fisher meant when she said, “I am hungry.” She was hungry for life. That hunger shouldn’t go away as you age. It is something that should always be celebrated, and always be acknowledged. That it can never be filled isn’t sad, it’s cause for celebration. It means being alive in the world and looking for that next empty table waiting to be ladened with a soul-filling meal.

Next year’s dinner will be February 6th, 2018. If you’d like to volunteer, please email Daniel Lucero at dlucero@ioaging.org. There’s a place at the table for you.

Institute on Aging works to create a living and vibrant community of older adults, their loved ones, and caregivers through education, outreach, and counseling. Get in touch with us today to learn more.

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Institute on Aging

Committed to offering thoughtful discussions and resources to older adults, their families, and their caregivers.

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