As Minnesota’s population grows older, the issues that arise with age are magnified in the state’s rural areas. Many older adults live alone, often on farms, and often lack easy mobility.
These older adults, who are trying to maintain their independence, often need some help, particularly when it comes to proper nourishment. Throughout the state, Meals on Wheels programs have prepared food for decades to deliver to those who need it.
But Minnesota’s small towns, often dwindling in population, increasingly lack the financial and volunteer resources to care for their aging neighbors. And the situation will only get worse as baby boomers, now in their 50s and 60s, grow older.
In Wadena and Todd counties in central Minnesota, the solution to ensuring proper nourishment has been to supply prepared meals from one central kitchen, rather than smaller kitchens in several towns. That strategy will soon get a boost from the Hilltop Regional Kitchen, a new facility in Eagle Bend that will double the region’s capacity to support Meals on Wheels and other meal programs.
Construction on the $850,000 project, which will open in June and be located in a renovated portion of the closed Eagle Bend High School, is scheduled for January. The kitchen will have the ability to prepare more than 100,000 meals a year “without stressing the system,” said Rick Hest, president of the Eagle Bend Senior Center, which will operate the new facility.
“Over time, what I think has become obvious to all the different groups who provide nutritional support is that it is difficult for each community to have its own kitchen,” Hest said. “They couldn’t find the volunteers, they couldn’t get financing. So it made sense for communities to join forces.”
The current kitchen in Eagle Bend serves the towns of Wadena, Staples, Clarissa, Browerville, and Long Prairie, among others. Its central location is well suited to delivering daily meals throughout the two counties: “We send one driver north and one driver south,” Hest said.
The Eagle Bend kitchen also is one of two in the state that prepares frozen meals, which are delivered in two-week supplies. The center also serves lunch to dozens of seniors every day.
Funding for the new project is being provided by a variety of sources, with major grants coming from South Country Health Alliance, an Owatonna-based organization that provides healthcare services in 12 counties, and the National Joint Powers Alliance, a Staples-based purchasing consortium.
The state of Minnesota also kicked in a six-figure grant, viewing the project as a model for what can be done with regional cooperation, said Loren Colman, assistant commissioner for continuing care for older adults at the state Department of Human Services.
“What we like is, they looked at their area and said, ‘How can we use this as a hub and spoke?’ ” Colman said. “That’s a model that we think is really valuable in the less-populated areas of Minnesota.
The regional kitchen will use commercial-grade equipment and meet restaurant codes, Hest said. Beyond the meals it will provide, he added, is the unexpected benefit of bringing part of the old high school back to life. Hest taught social studies at the school for 33 years before retiring. The school closed several years ago.
“When we had the groundbreaking, I was completely choked up,” Hest said. “You can’t really put a value on what it means. People went to this school, their kids went to this school, everything revolved around this school — and then, poof! It’s gone.
“It’s wonderful. Right now we’ve got a 107-year-old building that is absolutely stressed to the max.”