Image: Sara Wong

A new midcentury-modern diner opened in Vancouver last February, serving throwback classics—milkshakes swirled with Ruby Jewel ice cream, thick Reubens and burgers, and marionberry pie. The twist? It offers subsidized meals for seniors in a hip setting that lures neighbors of all ages to dine alongside them.

This menu with a mission is the brainchild of local nonprofit Meals on Wheels People, which has been delivering meals to older adults in the greater Portland area for almost 50 years. But today, the game has changed: “Back in 1970, when we started, people were happy to go to a senior center, but ... seniors today are different,” said Julie Piper Finley, the director of marketing for Meals on Wheels People.

The Diner, the nonprofit’s savvy, community-minded solution, is the first of its kind in the country, and many senior-focused nonprofits nationwide are looking to it as an model for a generation seeking autonomy and connection: “If you’re over the age of 60 and enrolled [in the Diner], you can donate what you can afford for the meal,” says Piper Finley. “It gives seniors a lot of dignity; the bill is brought to the table, and no one’s the wiser.”

The Diner fills a legitimate need for many locals. “It’s a lifesaver for people like me,” says 80-year-old Diner regular Sandy Golden. “I don’t get enough from food stamps to survive without this. It lets me have good food and healthy meals—it’s fabulous.” 

Everything at the Diner has been thoughtfully designed with an eye toward accessibility: bar stools have backs for added support, coffee cups are shaped specifically to accommodate people with arthritis, and silverware has added heft for guests with less feeling in their fingers.

All of those touches are in service of the goal of making meals healthier, more
accessible, and affordable for seniors—and of reconnecting them with their community. Be it sharing a cup of coffee and pie at the long bar, or snugging into a booth with friends for a full breakfast, the aim is to bring everyone to the table. “We’ve got businesspeople who eat here, families with kids, people who come in with their grandkids,” says Piper Finley. “It’s much more than a traditional senior center. It’s a slice of the neighborhood.”

The 15th Annual Light a Fire Awards

6 p.m., November 21, Oregon Convention Center

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