Senior Center’s director of food services talks balancing meals and nutrition

Joanna Vallelunga, director of Food Services, right, joins volunteers in the kitchen as they prepare meals for seniors on Wednesday at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal
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The menu starts with a barley lentil soup, followed by chicken with balsamic glaze, steamed rice with fresh cranberries, a light saute of collard greens, and a spring mix salad tossed in house-made Greek dressing. For dessert, an oatmeal peach crisp.

This may sound like a fancy meal at a local restaurant, but it’s just one of the lunches on the menu at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center.

Served Monday through Friday at 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., the lunches are created with senior nutrition needs in mind, without sacrificing the flavor.

“It can be pretty challenging, because seniors do have sodium restrictions, which is probably the toughest requirement to meet,” said Joanna Vallelunga, director of food services at the center. “That’s why we prepare everything from scratch, ensuring that our clients get to taste the actual ingredients, instead of the sodium added in a canned or processed diet.”
Vallelunga, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef, uses the foundational principles of cooking, adjusts them to senior nutritional guidelines, and adds a modern twist.

“Jerk chicken, which has Caribbean flavors, was the latest greatest hit. We added two to three ounces of sauce, which absolutely teased the taste buds,” Vallelunga said proudly. “Seniors out there want to have a treat and I want them to have at least one good, full meal a day.”

The passion for feeding seniors well came to Vallelunga after seven years of caring for her mother, who suffered from various health issues.

Volunteers work in the kitchen as they prepare meals to be served to seniors that are inside a packed lunchroom at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center on Wednesday in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal
Volunteers work in the kitchen as they prepare meals to be served to seniors that are inside a packed lunchroom at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center on Wednesday in Newhall. Dan Watson/The Signal

“Dietitians cut so much out of her diet,” she recalled. “One day, my mom said to me, ‘What’s the use of me living if I can’t eat the foods that I like?’”

Upon her hire at the Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center in August of 2012, Vallelunga made significant changes in the kitchen, training her staff of five to prepare recipes entirely from scratch.
“I am not a fan of processed food,” she said. “A lot of it is by-products and preservatives. Our bodies are not meant to process those foods.”

So even with 500 meals to prepare daily with the help of her staff and a dedicated roster of volunteers, Vallelunga focuses on fresh, tasty, healthy foods.

“The staff and volunteers here are truly dedicated in helping craft and serve safe, delicious and nutritious meals to enhance the lives of our seniors,” she said. “It feels good leaving work every day, knowing we put a smile on their faces.”
Preparing such meals takes the kind of effort she knows most seniors don’t have the ability to duplicate at home.

“In order for them to prepare a balanced meal means preparing 4 or 5 different components with a lot of cookware and items to dirty in the kitchen,” Vallelunga said. “That creates a lot of work. It’s so much easier to just come to the senior center.”

It’s a cost effective option, too. The suggested donation for a lunch at the center, which always includes 8 oz. of milk plus unlimited coffee and tea, is just $3.50, though seniors can contribute whatever they can afford.

There are other benefits to dining at the center, as Vallelunga illustrated.

“It’s a nice outing to sit with friends and talk,” she said.

The Santa Clarita Valley Senior Center is located at 22900 Market Street, Newhall. For more information, visit www.scvsc.org or call (661) 259-9444.

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