According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 54.1 million people in the United States were 65 and older as of 2019—up from 39.6 million in 2009. That population is projected to reach 80.8 million by 2040, and 94.7 million by 2060.”
Of course, not all seniors are financially well off—and that’s where the Riverside County Meals on Wheels program comes in, providing homebound and often financially insecure seniors with enjoyable, healthy meals.
The Mizell Center in Palm Springs operates its MOW program under a contract with the county. In addition to delivering those meals to the homebound, Mizell operates a daily congregate meal program at the building on Ramon Road and Sunrise Way. That’s also where the kitchen that produces all of those meals is located—and as the number of meals continues to grow, that small kitchen is becoming more and more inadequate.
On April 10, Mizell kicked off a fundraising campaign during the “Home at Last” event. The goal: to raise $1.3 million to expand and renovate Mizell’s kitchen.
“The whole thrust of this kitchen renovation is to be able to feed more people, more efficiently,” said Wes Winter, Mizell’s executive director, during a recent phone interview. “We want to address food-insecurity needs for seniors here in the Coachella Valley, and this is a way that we can do that. It will give us a giant shove forward, so we’re very excited by this whole project.”
The 642-square-foot kitchen was originally built more than 70 years ago. The renovation would add more than 1,100 square feet to the kitchen—making it 1,776 square feet, to be exact.
“The need is there,” Winter said. “… During (the worst days) of the COVID pandemic, our numbers increased tremendously: We went from about 450 meals per day to about 800 meals per day. That huge jump made it so clear that our current kitchen just is not adequate for the job that we need to do. Now that COVID has calmed down a bit, the numbers have dropped down to the 650 (meals per day) range, but we don’t anticipate that they’re going to drop down below that.
“And we need a better kitchen. That kitchen was built in 1951 as part of the old fire station. While the rest of the building has had about 11,000 square feet added on to it, the kitchen was never renovated. It has had new equipment installed, but it’s the same tiny, 642-square-foot kitchen that it always was. That’s just not sufficient to do the job that we’re being called on to do.”
According to California Department of Aging projections, Riverside County will experience a 248% increase in the number of seniors age 60 and above living in the county between 2010 and 2060—the highest projected growth rate in the state. The number of seniors over the age of 85 is projected to increase by more than 710%.
“We know that there are more seniors out there who need our services,” Winter said. “In many ways, we’ve been able to accommodate them in other aspects of our organization, but the meal program is limited by what we actually can do. We were able to bump up to the 800 (needed daily meals), but I don’t know how long we could have sustained that. Right now, we’re making 650 (meals per day) work, but it’s a small, crowded work environment for the staff. So part of (the expansion) is to increase our capacity to generate more meals, but another part is to make safer and more comfortable working conditions for the people who are preparing all of those meals.”
According to 2020 Census data at CensusReporter.org, almost 110,000 people 65 years of age and older live within the boundaries of the Coachella Valley’s nine cities—so it’s likely there are far more than 650 seniors who could use Meals on Wheels’ help. Some of that remaining need is met through Mizell’s congregate meal service, which takes place every weekday at lunchtime. During the earlier days of the COVID-19 pandemic, the congregate meals were discontinued to protect both patrons and staff—seniors could pick up pre-prepared meals instead—but in May, hungry patrons were finally welcomed back for in-person lunches.
“At the end of last June, we opened building access to members only with vaccines, masks and hand sanitizer,” Winter said, “Then, several weeks later, we opened to another level, and then another, and another. Congregate dining was the last place we needed to get to (as part of our reopening). Now that COVID is relaxing, the whole point to a congregate meal program is that folks are dining together. They’re getting out of their homes, and they’re socializing, and recreating, and being part of a community. … Our goal has been to get back to as much normalcy as we possibly can.”
As of this writing, the Mizell Center has no COVID-19-related safety restrictions in place for members and visitors, although staff members and volunteers are required to be vaccinated. Mask-wearing is encouraged, but not mandated.
“Currently, the attendance numbers in the dining room are not what they were before COVID,” Winter said. “Some of that’s because of the time of the year now. Many of the snowbirds have already gone back to where they live the rest of the year, and some of it’s because folks aren’t necessarily comfortable dining in a congregate setting yet. Still, every few days, we see the numbers increase. Right now, we’re serving about 65 folks per day in the dining room, and we’ve been careful to keep the tables spaced further apart than they used to be. But I think at this time of the year, pre-COVID, we were serving about 80 people a day.”
Winter estimates that about $520,000 of the $1.3 million needed for the kitchen expansion has been raised. How will the remaining $700,000-plus will be raised?
“We are relying on the folks who know and have loved the Mizell Center over our 47 years,” Winter said. “We’re counting on them to jump in, and many already have. That’s how we got to the point where we’re at today. Also, we’ve thrown our hat into the ring for City of Palm Springs Measure J funding, and we’re hoping to hear about that in the next month or so. That could provide some significant help, and we’ll broaden the campaign out to the community, so that more local community members—who may not be able to participate at a major donor level, but would like to be part of the campaign—will be able to participate.”
Winter said the expansion timeline should become clearer once Mizell learns about the Measure J funding.
“If it’s a ‘yes,’ then how much funding we will be granted will tell us more about when we’ll be able to move forward,” Winter said. “And then we’ll have to sit down with the contractor and find out when the contractor can actually begin the job. Then we’ll need some time to move our kitchen offsite for the period of construction. … Then we’ll need to secure another space to make sure that there is no hitch in meal preparation and delivery.”
Winter said he’s hoping the bigger kitchen leads to bigger and better things beyond Meals on Wheels and the congregate meals.
“What we’re imagining is that, with the newer, larger kitchen, we will be able to prepare more meals, and we will need additional staff,” Winter said. “… Also, over the past couple of years, we’ve been asked by other organizations—who have some sort of a client base that they’d like to provide meals for—if we could prepare those meals, and if they could contract out with us to provide that service. Up until now, we haven’t had the capacity to do that—but with the new kitchen, we will be able to take that on. … We’re looking at all kinds of growth areas for our kitchen. It all depends on getting it done.”
For more information or to donate, visit mizell.org/kitchen-expansion-project.