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Tuesday, 04 September 2012 09:29

Senior Meals Program plans $2.5M expansion

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Senior Meals Program plans $2.5M expansion PHOTO: Elijah Brumback
GRAND RAPIDS — Almost everyone has heard of the “meals on wheels” service, but few actually understand what it takes to provide nutritious and timely meals to those who can’t afford or don’t have the ability to buy and prepare meals themselves.

With a growing population of seniors and a “silver tsunami” of baby boomers headed toward their golden years, Senior Meals Program Inc. is experiencing an influx of those in need, so much so that the independent nonprofit meal provider is expanding its operations.

According to information from Senior Meals, 18 percent of Michigan’s population is 60 years of age or older, and the 85 and older age group is the fastest-growing demographic in the state.

With a nearly $2.5 million space at 2900 Wilson Avenue in Grandville currently under redevelopment, Senior Meals hopes to better serve its growing client base. The 200,000-square-foot facility includes new administrative offices, increased storage capacity and a larger commercial kitchen with space to grow.

Grand Rapids-based Post Associates Inc. designed the project. Wolverine Building Group Inc. of Grand Rapids will manage the construction.

The administrative offices were converted two years ago when the organization moved from its old building on Cedar Street. However, the organization just broke ground on a redevelopment of the commercial park space adjacent to its offices.

“For a long time, we have been overcapacity and were really crammed at our previous location,” said Paul Beebe, president and CEO of Senior Meals. “To meet our demands, we needed to move.”

Senior Meals currently serves more than 6,000 aging residents in Kent County and provides roughly 800,000 meals annually to seniors through all its programs. The organization also serves 14 dining centers around the county and is continuing to improve its offerings with programs like Project Fresh, which connects older adults to fresh produce grown by Michigan farmers.

All this is happening while the rising price of gas and other commodities like grain and livestock continue to stretch the organization’s shrinking, partially federal and state funded budget.

The current drought in some parts of Michigan and across the country along with the reductions to senior social programs like Medicaid are some of Senior Meals big concerns as the organization addresses its future costs, Beebe said.

Senior Meals receives approximately 60 percent of its budget through two major tax revenue sources: the Older Americans Act and the Kent Country Senior Millage. The rest comes from its fee services such as emergency box meals and donations.

“Getting the kitchen up and running and the success of the capital campaign is our focus right now,” he said. “We’re seeing Older Americans Act revenues decrease each year, and we believe they’ll continue to decrease, hopefully at a manageable level.”

In recent years, Seniors Meals has grown to serve Barry and Montcalm counties as well as a portion of Allegan County, exacerbating the need for more capacity at its kitchens.

Beebe said the kitchen expansion would allow more food testing and meal planning as well as the capability to expand its fee services, which are becoming more and more important to the company’s roughly $4 million operating budget. Beebe said the organization anticipates the ability to produce more than one million meals annually.

To complete to the build out of the new space, Senior Meals embarked on capital campaign to raise the rest of funds needed. So far the organization has raised 52 percent of the necessary funding.

People acknowledge providing meals to seniors is a necessary service, `but they don’t realize that it takes a lot of effort and funding to serve a client base that depends on meals, said Emily Talsma, project manager for Senior Meals.

“With continuing cuts to our social programs, a big part of us being viable over the long term is more people in the community realizing we are here,” she said. “Part of what we hope to accomplish with the capital campaign is to raise that awareness and educate people on the growing need.”

Lead private donations from partners including the Wege Foundation, the Frey Foundation, Steelcase Foundation and the Sebastian Foundation helped put the project on a fast track.

Beebe said the public fundraising portion of the capital campaign is forthcoming and it may take another six months to a year to raise the additional project funding. Senior Meals employs 65 people, 17 of which are full-time. With the expansion, Beebe said there is potential to hire more kitchen and support staff.

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