Meals on Wheels needs a new home — fast

Nonprofit that delivers meals to homebound people has until Christmas to find a new kitchen

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TLC Meals on Wheels has helped keep thousands of seniors and people with disabilities in their homes.

Now, the nonprofit needs the community's help to find them a home of their own.

TLC, now in its 50th year, has operated out of the old Ames Elementary School in Centennial for the past decade, using the cafeteria and kitchen to prepare hundreds of meals every day to distribute to homebound people.

But a Littleton Public Schools bond passed in 2018 calls for tearing down and rebuilding Ames before reopening it as an elementary school, and recent architectural planning means TLC Meals on Wheels has to be out by Christmas.

That means the group has to find or build an affordable large-scale commerical kitchen in the south metro area — fast.

And it's not going to be cheap.

“This is huge,” said Diane McClymonds, TLC's executive director. “This organization has never had a challenge like this before.”

Caseload, costs growing

Though plans are still evolving, McClymonds said it's looking like they'll need $2 million or more to lease or buy a new building and outfit it with a suitable kitchen. She called it a heavy lift for a group with an annual budget of roughly $700,000 — most of which goes directly to food purchase, preparation and distribution.

TLC prepared 128,000 meals last year, McClymonds said, distributed to 813 clients across the south metro area.

The caseload has been growing in recent years, said Kathy Kreidler, the president of TLC's board of directors.

The group is currently delivering about 450 meals a day, Kreidler said — about double the caseload in 2009 when they moved into Ames. Recipients are asked to donate what they can toward the full cost of a meal, which is $4. Nobody is turned down for being unable to pay.

In the past, Kreidler said, about a third of recipients were unable to donate. Now, the number is up to about 44 percent and growing, as rising housing costs squeeze seniors and the disabled.

High-volume kitchen needed

With the caseload growing, it's more important than ever that TLC have a kitchen that can handle high volume cooking, Kreidler said.

“We can't just use any old restaurant kitchen,” Kreidler said. “It will take a ton of time to find the right place, and in the meantime, we've got to keep the program going.”

Since getting the news in December, TLC has been exploring their options, Kreidler said: they'd like to partner with another nonprofit agency, but currently none of the groups in the area have a place to share. Littleton Public Schools may have a spare kitchen for them in a few years when a variety of construction projects across the district are finished, but that timeline isn't set in stone, and it would be a pain to move to a new facility only to pick up and move again in a few years. Renting a facility might cut it, but that leaves the group susceptible to rent hikes or eviction.

That leaves buying a facility of their own, Kreidler said.

“The opportunity is huge,” Kreidler said. “If we could fundraise enough for our own place, our expenses would go up, but we could swing it.”

Time of the essence

But the clock is ticking. LPS will begin tearing down Ames in sections beginning this summer, but will work around TLC's kitchen as long as possible, said Diane Doney, the school district's assistant superintendent.

“At one point we thought we could build the new building off to the side while the old one was still standing,” Doney said. “But the architect said the best spot on the property is right where the current building is. It's a small site. It's a shame.”

Doney said the relationship between the district and TLC has been very positive.

“We love them,” Doney said. “We liked them there. We tried our best to figure out something.”

TLC bears no hard feelings toward LPS, Kreider said.

“We've had a wonderful relationship with them,” Kreidler said. “They gave us a great deal. They provided maintenance and security. They even put in a new grease trap for us.”

LPS charged TLC about a thousand dollars a month to rent the Ames kitchen, Doney said.

If the stars don't align in time, McClymonds said, TLC will have to find an interim space, and may have to switch to primarily frozen meals until a new location can be found.

“I don't want to go there,” McClymonds said. “We'll be here. We're a community-based program, and now we need the community's support to figure this out and carry on.”

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