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story.lead_photo.caption Patrons were able to sit down for a meal at the California Nutrition Center for the first time since March of 2020 on Monday, May 24, 2021, as in-person service made its return. Nutrition Center board president Dee Butts said with the return, other recurring events hopefully have a return of their own on the horizon. Photo by Austin Hornbostel / California Democrat.

After more than a year of solely curbside service, members of the public were able to sit down for a meal at the California Nutrition Center once again Monday.

The Nutrition Center returned to offering in-person service officially at the beginning of the week. Patrons who choose to dine in a seat inside will notice a number of measures aimed toward pandemic safety: face masks are required for entry, sanitary wipes and hand sanitizer bottles sit on every table, and the usual self-serve drinks are now served by a staff member.

Meals were first forced to drive-thru pickup in mid-March of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Community volunteers kept meal service running early on, and meals were able to continue at their usual every weekday pace up until Monday's triumphant return. Despite the shift to drive-thru service during the past year, meal traffic didn't slow, Nutrition Center board president Dee Butts said Monday.

"We have done probably as high as 160 (patrons) on a good day out there," Butts said. "It's been wild. Ran out of food, had them backed up down in the second block (from the building)."

Butts said the Nutrition Center was aided by a wealth of volunteers who helped to keep service going early on. Being so busy made sense, Butts said, because of the abundance of caution felt by many early on in the pandemic.

Now, patrons still have the option of curbside service or in-person dining; Butts said the Nutrition Center sent out a survey in advance of Monday's return and found that about half of roughly 70 respondents were in favor of continuing curbside service. By the end of the usual food service window at 12:30 p.m. Monday, around 20 curbside meals had been served.

Butts said it's likely a service the Nutrition Center will continue indefinitely. Aging Best — an agency serving communities through senior centers in 19 counties in central Missouri including Moniteau County — gave them the okay to move forward with offering both options.

The recent in-person return has meant that other Nutrition Center events are also able to return, Butts said. One example is the annual Timeless Treasures rummage sale, which she said resulted in around $4,700 raised for the Nutrition Center.

"Biggest thing I've ever seen," Butts said, gesturing to the open space at the other side of the building space. "This whole place, there was just hardly any room to walk."

By extension, the Nutrition Center board is in the process of planning for bringing back its usual monthly events, senior dance nights and Fun Nights. Though details aren't yet set in stone, Butts said the hope is that a return is on the horizon for community events like these soon, too. The main road blocks, for now, are planning around other community events that might conflict and funding. Butts said more decisions will be made at the board's next meeting.

Both senior dance nights and Fun Nights have specific draws; Butts said the dance nights tend to pull in more people from areas outside California, while Fun Night crowds tend to be comprised mostly of local patrons. The scheduling nitpicks are more of a issue for the dance nights, Butts said, so the hope is to come up with a concrete plan at the next board meeting on the second Tuesday in June.

"We've got to decide," Butts said. "Because I think we need to have that for the seniors. They need something (social to do)."

In the case of Fun Nights, though, there's a different problem; the stock of "goodies" provided for bingo-winners needs some replenishing, Butts said. Getting enough to start up again with the usual amenities will likely take "a couple hundred dollars," she said. People who want to donate can make out a check to the Nutrition Center or even provide cash, which Butts said the board would then take to a local store for a treat shopping spree.

Either way, the California Nutrition Center is starting to take the steps toward returning to business as usual. Butts said that means keeping busy, as is the custom.

"We're the busiest center in the 31 that (Aging Best) has got, out of 19 counties," Butts said. "They're always bragging on us."

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