By Roz Kohls
Don Peroutka of Cokato was honored March 20 for his 23 years’ involvement in the congregate senior dining program in Cokato. He was presented with a certificate at a ceremony at the noon meal at Cokato Apartments, 440 2nd St. NW, where he is management agent for the apartments.
Peroutka, originally from Montgomery, Minn., initiated the contact with Catholic Charities of St. Cloud to set up the site.
It’s a challenge for single people to cook nutritional meals for themselves, he said.
Congregate dining also gives seniors an opportunity to get out of their houses, and be with others, added Dianna Stalberger. She has been the senior dining site coordinator for the past six years.
“That was the premise of it,” Peroutka said.
Cokato Manor already prepared food for the nursing home and Meals on Wheels then, but there was no congregate site in Cokato. Catholic Charities agreed to fund the program, he said.
Individual diners who are seniors pay $3.25 each. Whatever in the meal costs more than that is covered by Catholic Charities, Peroutka said.
The program is open to the entire community, however. The site has a capacity for 45 people. Non-seniors can get a meal for $6 each, he added.
“It’s open to everybody. Everybody is welcome. Try it. They’re good nutritious meals,” Peroutka said.
All that is required, is that you notify the site a day in advance, so Cokato Manor can get a meal ready, he said.
In the beginning, Cokato City Hall was proposed for the congregate dining site, but it had too many stairs, he said.
At the time when the site was being planned, Peroutka worked at State Bank of Cokato and was involved in financing the elderly housing complex. The first building in the complex, where his office is now, seemed like the best bet at the time, he said.
However, over the years, Cokato grew to the south and east. The site is no longer as centrally located as it was in the beginning. Crossing to the north side of Highway 12 is an issue for seniors, too, he said.
Seniors have the option of riding the River Rider bus to the site, but many choose not to. An average of 22 diners come to the site, and most are residents of the same apartment building in which the site is located. Cokato Apartments are limited to those at least 62 years old or disabled, he said.
Thinking back, Peroutka said he wishes the growth of Cokato could have been predicted.
The food remains popular. It’s not the typical institutional fare, despite the fact that Cokato Manor prepares between 375 to 400 meals, enough to serve all the Cokato Manor-related residences and Meals on Wheels, he said.
The seniors’ favorites are the lighter meals, such as soup and sandwiches, cranberry-glazed chicken, and battered fish. During the summer, seniors have brats and hamburgers grilled outside. For St. Patrick’s Day, they had corned beef and cabbage. Holiday meals feature special food, Stalberger said.
In addition to tasting good, the meals are made to fit seniors’ special needs, such as diabetic and low-sodium meals, Stalberger said.
“You can’t please everyone,” she said. “No two cooks are alike.”
Considering the large amount of food prepared at once, the meals are still good, Peroutka agreed. Some seniors would prefer the mashed potatoes, for example, were made from just-peeled potatoes. If Cokato Manor spent that much time peeling potatoes, it wouldn’t finish all those meals by dinner, he said.
Senior dining also tries to have educational topics or entertainment during the meals. Usually, the seniors entertain each other, however. Stalberger related a story about a woman who usually was very serious, but had a good sense of humor. She approached Stalberger shortly before the meal began and said, “I accidentally flushed my dentures down the stool. I just watched them zoom right down,” Stalberger said.
That was several years ago, Stalberger said, and she still laughs when she remembers it.