Meals on Wheels for Franklin and Madison counties are now being heated and distributed to volunteer drivers from a new facility on Harmon Avenue, less than two miles from the West Mound Street preparation kitchen.
LifeCare Alliance, which administers the popular program in the two central Ohio counties, dedicated a new kitchen in a building that also includes a cafeteria open to the public, a dining area with seating for 300 people, meeting rooms and two food pantries.
All of this fits inside a former warehouse that LifeCare Alliance president Chuck Gehring says "is the greenest of green" buildings.
"We were able to reuse a building and use recyclable materials," he said on Nov. 20 at the dedication ceremonies, specially singling out the building’s white reflective roof.
The landscaping has retained three large trees alongside the building and the utilized natural water run off with no storm water being dumped into city sewers.
The building has 40,000 square feet, far above the 14,000 of the current facility. With the increased space, LifeCare Alliance will be able to prepare, package and store up to three to four times the number of meals it has been preparing.
Meals will still be prepared at the West Mound Street kitchen where Meals on Wheels has been preparing, storing, and distributing as many as 6,000 meals a day. Once they are quick cooled, they will be trucked to the Harmon Avenue facility where they can be stored and frozen in large refrigerated areas.
Meals packaged in compartmentalized trays can be heated in ovens that have 14 shelves to a rack. Trays of hot food will then be put into the insulated bags and the bags taken out to waiting vans and cars for delivery.
"We’ll be putting up a giant awning so the drivers who have had to load their cars in all kinds of weather will now be protected," Gehring said.
Meals delivered into the far reaches of Franklin County and the 11 routes in neighboring Madison County go by truck to a drop-off location in the community where dedicated volunteers deliver them to older adults.
Gehring is proud of the hundreds of people who deliver the meals every day of the year.
"This past year we saw an increase in the price of gas and in the cost of food," he said. "But we lost only one volunteer because of high gas prices."
Employees also have a new amenity – lockers. This means they can come to work in regular clothes and change into their uniforms before going to their assigned areas.
Before, according to spokesperson Michelle Jones, they had to wear their uniforms to and from work.
This building, remodeled as part of a $6.5 million fund-raising campaign, is also drawing attention from similar programs throughout the country, Gehring said.
"It’s a national model. The cafeteria is modeled after one in Chicago," he said. "Programs from Providence, Buffalo, and Cincinnati are looking at us and Atlanta has already been here."
LifeCare Alliance, which operates one of the more successful Meals on Wheels programs in the country, provides meals to older adults, the chronically ill and residents with disabilities to help them stay in their own homes longer.
"Some cities have a waiting list," Gehring said, noting Houston’s program has had a waiting list of 700 people. "We never have had a waiting list."
The cafeteria, known as Carrie’s Café, is named for Carrie Nelson Black, wife of a Columbus mayor in the late 1890s who said she would "care for people no one else cares for."
She founded the Visiting Nurse Association which has become LifeCare Alliance, the Central Ohio Breathing Association and the Columbus Cancer Clinic.
The cafeteria will be open for lunches, but Gehring hopes that it will soon be able to expand to include breakfast hours.
Meals on Wheels, in addition to delivering to residences, also delivers to selected locations throughout the service area where older adults congregate at the noon hour.
One of those dining areas will be located at the new facility. The senior dining area will offer camaraderie to the older adult who would like to enjoy a little companionship with their meals, Gehring said. Older adults can use LifeCare Alliance transportation if they need a ride to the dining area.
There will also be special programming for the older adults, including computer access, as well as an exercise area and a health maintenance program operated through the onsite wellness service.
LifeCare Alliance has brought the Columbus Cancer Clinic under its umbrella and has embraced Project Open Hand, a program for people with HIV/AIDS. Separate food pantries have been set up for clients of these two agencies.
LA Catering, a service of LifeCare Alliance, is also housed at the facility and provides catering services throughout the county.
With all the environmentally friendly items and other amenities, clients can be assured they will be getting the same quality food and service they have come to expect down through the years.