TOWNSEND -- Wedges of perfect, red tomatoes glistening with Vidalia onion dressing contrasted with chunks of yellow summer squash. A toasted hot dog roll, stuffed with seafood salad, nestled beside a scoop of finely chopped coleslaw. A white plate framed the meal.
Twenty-five seniors paid $3 each for the colorful repast, prepared from scratch and using local produce.
Two Thursdays each month, Donna Fenton, the kitchen site manager at the Townsend Senior Center, prepares a home-cooked lunch for the elders of the community.
On Aug. 22, she had a little extra help.
Students from the service learning program at North Middlesex Regional High School arrived at the Meeting Hall to do everything from cutting and chopping to plating and serving the meal. In exchange, Fenton offered them some helpful hints for food preparation.
While stuffing the rolls, Sam Meehan, a senior from Townsend, said she wished she had a taco holder to make the process easier. A muffin tin, turned upside-down, can be pressed into service to support a taco shell, or in this case, a hot dog roll, Fenton said.
All of the produce came from Fenton's garden or was grown nearby. Each table was set with a centerpiece of fresh vegetables and dip for munching before the meal was served.
The money collected from the diners pays for the goods. Fenton's salary is paid through a grant from the Greater Lowell Community Foundation and the Community Foundation of North Central Massachusetts.
An increase in the grant this year means that Fenton will be serving lunch the first three Thursdays of each month beginning in September. Two of the meals will be "old-fashioned comfort food" like meatloaf or ziti and one will be lighter, perhaps a salad, she said.
The amount of fresh vegetables could also increase thanks to the community garden the North Middlesex students grow each summer. The produce is donated to local charities and since the visit from the service learning students, the senior center will now reap some of the harvest.
The student-run garden is doing very well this summer, said Ray Kane, service learning faculty advisor. Harvesting has begun and after lunch, the high school crew was headed back to do some gardening.
Seniors unable to leave their homes and attend lunches at the senior center can ask for a meal to be sent home with a volunteer. Fenton said she would much rather see people come in to eat if at all possible because the lunches are social occasions.
Regular meals at the senior center began when the Montachusett Opportunity Council started to provide the lunches. The meals are served every Monday and Wednesday, except for holidays.
Before she was hired for the part-time position, Fenton volunteered to manage the kitchen. As the food service manager at Hawthorne Brook Middle School, she was already well-known to the seniors. Before the new senior center opened, she prepared senior meals at the school.
The cook is popular with her senior clientele. She always adds a little something extra to the meal, soup or maybe dessert, said Christine Clish, director of the Council on Aging.
The men and women at Thursday's lunch made short work of the meal so carefully prepared and served by students under Fenton's supervision. After all, there was that red velvet and chocolate cake or cheesecake, both from Hannaford Supermarket, for dessert.