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Decades of dedication: Lisa Berkowitz’s lifelong commitment to Meals on Wheels

Presented by Community Bridges
Community Bridges PC Lisa B Retires
Lisa Berkowitz, the heart and soul of Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County almost since its inception, recently completed a remarkable 44-year career with this essential social service safety net program.
(Community Bridges)

Dignity. Respect. Independence.

For Lisa Berkowitz, ensuring that Santa Cruz County’s older adults can live with all three is fundamental.

Lisa, the heart and soul of Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County almost since its inception, recently completed a remarkable 44-year career with this essential social service safety net program, and is handing the reins to Darren Daley, a community-minded leader with a decade of community development experience in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors who joined Community Bridges in June.

Community Bridges PC Lisa B Retires
Many social service programs were a result of political action during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. The Older Americans Acts was passed in 1965, authorizing funding for older adult nutrition services. Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County was formed in 1976 as the Golden Age Nutrition Program.
(Community Bridges)

Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County, which is part of Community Bridges’ family of ten community-serving programs, first started in 1976 as the Golden Age Nutrition Program. Lisa, then a relative newcomer to the area, was hired in 1979 as the Food Service Director and became program director in 1996. Since then, she has served the community with dedication, compassion, and an unwavering commitment to the region’s older adults.

Lisa has built a strong and dedicated program that has been able to meet our community’s needs regardless of the resources available, the circumstances surrounding us, and meeting the increased need. She has figured out a way to truly get to a vision of trying to ensure no older adult ever goes hungry and has worked her whole career in making that a reality. We are so fortunate to have had her here and, in that role.

— Ray Cancino, Community Bridges CEO

Under her leadership, Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County has nearly surpassed 10 million meals served. Annually, the program provides more than 150,000 meals thanks to a small but mighty staff of 16 employees and more than 50 volunteers. Lisa’s vigilance has ensured the program “never misses a meal,” even throughout the floods of 1982, the earthquake of 1989, the recession in 2009, the pandemic and wildfires of 2020, cost inflation in 2022, and atmospheric river storms and floods of 2023.

A Serendipitous Start

Lisa’s journey into the world of senior nutrition services was nothing short of serendipitous. Armed with a bachelor’s degree in human nutrition management from Ohio State University, she initially anticipated a career working with children. However, life had other plans for her. After relocating to California with her husband, they spent a year caring for her grandpa in Los Angeles. It was during this time that Lisa had her first experience working with older adults in a retirement home, and it was a revelation.

“I became convinced very quickly that this was the population I wanted to work with,” Lisa reminisces.

Community Bridges PC Lisa B Retires
Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County serves more than 1,500 older adults in the region, a majority of whom live at or below the poverty line and have disabilities or health issues.
(Community Bridges)

Joining the Golden Age Nutrition Program in 1979 was a significant leap. She had to oversee three kitchens, seven dining sites, and the responsibility to serve nearly 1,500 older adults between two counties.

Today, Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County serves roughly 1,500 older adults annually, providing more than 155,000 home-delivered meals and around 45,000 hot and nutritious meals at four community dining sites, as well as sister program Elderday Adult Day Health Care.

A Glimpse into the Past

Lisa vividly remembers the early days of her tenure when technology was far from what it is today.

I think Santa Cruz County is an amazing place to live and work,” Lisa says. “And I would hope that we continue making progress in realizing that all members of our community need to be supported and provided with the opportunity to live a life with dignity.

— Lisa Berkowitz

“I didn’t sit down with my first computer until 1985,” she recalls with a smile.

Back then, the meal preparation and delivery process relied heavily on manual calculations and handwritten records. The journey from those humble beginnings to today’s sophisticated data management systems has enabled Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County to efficiently track the needs of the community and offer better services.

Having the experience of pen-to-paper record-keeping, however, has proven crucial during times of emergency.

Lisa’s journey has been marked by resilience in the face of adversity, as natural disasters have tested the organization’s mettle. During the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, the Meals on Wheels kitchen ceiling collapsed, leading to a makeshift operation in the parking lot. Despite the chaos, not a single meal delivery was missed. It was a testament to the dedication of both the staff and volunteers.

And when the COVID-19 Pandemic began in 2020, Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County pivoted many of its services to meet the growing need for home-delivered meals. Her team lost many volunteers because of the shelter-in-place orders and the demand for home deliveries more than doubled. Still, they did not miss a single meal.

Changing Demographics and Needs

Over the years, Lisa has witnessed significant changes in the demographic served by Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County and the volunteers who come to our door to serve. She notes that the rising cost of living in Santa Cruz County, which was recently named the least affordable rental market in the nation, has forced more seniors, even those as young as 60, to seek assistance. This trend, coupled with an increasing number of unhoused seniors and the rapidly growing older adult population in Santa Cruz County, underscores the pressing need for Meals on Wheels’ services.

Looking forward, Lisa’s hopes and dreams for Meals on Wheels for Santa Cruz County are rooted in securing a future, permanent home for the program where older adult services can continue to blossom to meet the increased demand and where a community-invested space can result in more meals to be delivered to those we serve. She envisions Santa Cruz County becoming an age-friendly community where senior services are adequately funded and accessible. Both the state and local leaders have taken steps toward realizing this vision, but she says that a significant component is still missing—adequate funding.

Community Bridges PC Lisa B Retires
Elected officials from around Santa Cruz County, as well as those in the state senate and assembly, honored Lisa Berkowitz (second from right) with proclamations recognizing her four decades of service. September 8 was recognized as Lisa Berkowitz Day in the City of Santa Cruz by Mayor Fred Keeley.
(Community Bridges)

Local, state, and federal funding for older adult-serving programs have either remained stagnant at levels formulated in the 1980s or steadily dissipated.

“I hope that with the work that is being done with age-friendly communities and the [State’s] Master Plan on Aging for senior services, there is not only a continued focus on senior services but also the investment that is going to be needed to make those services a reality,” she says. “I would hope that our community feels that it’s as important to assure that all members of our community are healthy and supported.”

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