MAHOPAC, N.Y - It was just another morning at the senior center: Women were sewing, men were playing pool — and seven demonstrators, average age 76, were picketing outside, demanding doughnuts.
They wore sandwich boards proclaiming, "Give Us Our Just Desserts" and "They're Carbs, Not Contraband."
At issue is a decision to refuse free doughnuts, pies and breads that were being donated to senior centers around Putnam County, north of New York City. Officials were concerned that the county was setting a bad nutritional precedent by providing mounds of doughnuts and other sweets to seniors.
The picketers said they were objecting not to a lack of sweets but that they weren't consulted about the ban.
"Lack of respect is what it's all about," said Joe Hajkowski, 75, a former labor union official who organized the demonstration. He said officials had implied that seniors were gorging themselves on jelly doughnuts and were too senile to make the choice for themselves.
C. Michael Sibilia said, "I'm 86, not 8."
Inside, some seniors said they missed the doughnuts but others said they were glad to see them go.
"It was disgusting the way people went after them," said 80-year-old Rita Jorgensen. "I think the senior center did them a favor by taking it away."
Stan Tuttle, coordinator of nutritional services for the county's Office for the Aging, said the program had gotten out of control. As many as 16 cases of breads, cakes and pastries were delivered, by various means, to the William Koehler Memorial Senior Center each day. Some were moldy and some had been stored overnight in the trunks of volunteers' cars, he said.
Caregivers there and elsewhere say the doughnut debate illustrates the difficulty of balancing nutrition and choice when providing meals to the elderly.
"Senior citizens can walk down to the store and buy doughnuts. Nobody's stopping them," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington.
But he notes that older people have high rates of heart disease and high blood pressure and says senior citizen centers, nursing homes and assisted-living centers should not be worsening the health problems of seniors.
At the North East Bronx Senior Citizen Center, lunch is served five times a week (suggested contribution $1.50).
"We don't tell them what to do, we don't force them to eat what's good for them. But we certainly don't give them anything that's bad for them," said center director Silvia Ponce.
The church-basement senior center, one of 325 under the New York City Department for the Aging, has a mostly Italian-American clientele, a Naples-born cook and a menu that includes eggplant parmigiana, linguini with clams and manicotti.
"We try to give them what they like," said the cook, Stella Bruno.
The lunches have to supply one-third of the federal minimum daily requirements in such categories as calories, protein, vitamin C and vitamin A, said Chris Miller, spokesman for the department.
The Bronx center offers coffee, tea, bagels and rolls in the morning, but nothing in the doughnut family.
"The sweetest thing here is the raisin in the raisin bagel," said Nicholas Volpicella, 87.
Maureen Janowski, director of nutrition resources for Morrison Senior Dining in Atlanta, which provides meals at more than 370 senior living communities, says residents' food preferences depend somewhat on their age. Those born between 1901 and 1925 generally prefer meat and potatoes, and those born between 1925 and 1942 are "a little more trendy, a little more adventurous, a lot more nutrition-savvy," she said.
"They have choices, and we show them how to make good choices," she said.
At the Bronx center, Bruno said she tries to help the seniors avoid the bad buffet choices when they take a trip to Atlantic City. As a group was departing, she handed them bag lunches — with a roast beef sandwich, cranberry juice and carrot sticks.
"Protein, vitamin C, vitamin A," she said.