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New kitchen helps feed aging population in Wadena, Todd counties

The project partners in the golden shovel picture, from left are: Rick Hest, Eagle Bend Senior Center, Loren Colman, Minnesota Department of Human Services, Judy Petrie, Staples Senior Center, Leota Lind, South County Health Alliance, Roxanne Jenkins, Lutheran Social Services, Julie Myhre, Minnesota Department of Health, Gary Kneisl, Todd County Commissioner, Kevin Hess, City of Eagle Bend, Paul Drange, NJPA, Jeff Scholten, Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Submitted photo

A central Minnesota kitchen is now a step closer to serving hundreds of hot meals each week to area seniors, thanks in part to innovation funding from National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA).

Project leaders for the Hilltop Regional Kitchen held a ceremonial groundbreaking at the former Eagle Valley High School ag/shop building to celebrate the start of the building phase there. The entire project price tag is expected to come close to $1 Million, with NJPA chipping in $100,000.

"A program like this one makes it possible (for seniors) to stay healthy and to stay in their homes for as long as possible," says Eagle Bend Senior Center President Rick Hest. The current kitchen at the senior center was designed to serve 25 meals a day, but currently serves 225 per day as the main hub for Meals on Wheels throughout Wadena and Todd counties.

With the area's population getting older, the need for senior food services is growing too. The new Hilltop Regional Kitchen is going to quadruple their kitchen space, while expanding serving and storage capabilities.

"It's such a great service with a solid plan, so we had to figure a way to help as much as possible" says NJPA Director of Regional Programs Paul Drange. After a thorough evaluation, the kitchen proposal did meet all the funding requirements, but ran up against a budget cap, so Drange and other NJPA leaders expanded Innovation Funding by $70,000 this year to fully fund the kitchen request.

"It's a great regional project built on cooperation," Drange said. "The kitchen will help meet the basic needs of hundreds of area residents while repurposing a vacant building in our community."

Hest says it "warms his heart" more than 100 people showed up for the ceremony, because it proves people care about the building and the project being successful. Hest says the kitchen provides more than nutrition for area residents because mental health is so closely related to physical well being. "There are a lot of simple things seniors can't do for themselves anymore, and we are just part of that lifeline process," Hest said.

Workers have already started minor renovations, with a kitchen grand opening slated for June 1, 2017.

NJPA's Innovation Funding was created to help public agencies in Cass, Crow Wing, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties (Region 5) fund initiatives aimed at creating collaboration and improving the region. The program promotes "outside-of-the-box" teamwork on projects that might not otherwise get off the ground. The projects are selected by our members, and NJPA provides financial and logistical support. This annual funding opportunity is in its third year; with $307,000 awarded in 2014, $411,933 awarded in 2015, and $420,235 awarded in 2016. NJPA is a service cooperative providing funding support for Region 5 public projects and initiatives through Innovation Funding and shared services. The support is not considered a grant.