STAFFORD – The newly renovated Ocean County Southern Service Center saw a packed house for the official ribbon cutting of the center’s Senior Nutrition Site and Home Delivered Meals Production Kitchen on May 14.
The nutrition site was originally established in the Ocean County Northern Resource Center located in Lakewood, “but the need outgrew that site,” according to Maria La Face, Director of the Office of Senior Services. La Face noted that the program transitioned from one center to another in just three days, “without missing one meal.”
Now located at the Southern Service Center at the intersection of Routes 9 and 72 in Stafford Township, the nutrition center provides seniors with daily nutritious meals while serving as a “centerpiece” for social and educational opportunities for Ocean County seniors.
According to Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari, Chairman of the Office of Senior Services, the Senior Nutrition Site and Home Delivered Meals Production Kitchen provides both a meal and a lifeline to the county’s senior residents who are frail or homebound.
“It helps them maintain their independence and their integrity,” Vicari said. “And those are key elements for a good quality of life.”
In addition to the meals provided at the service center, the program provides more than 1,100 home-delivered meals to seniors in need every day. County officials noted that, with the delivery of each day’s meal, staff of the service center also perform a wellness check, and serve as a conversation companion and someone to make sure everything is in order.
Freeholder Vicari provided a short history of the Southern Service Center during the ceremony, noting that the county purchased the property in order to make it a destination point for southern Ocean County residents. However, they didn’t fully realize the significance of the location until Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
“It was an evacuation center…now we have generators, we have enough food for at least 30 days, we can really service this particular area,” Vicari said. “But I think our main concern today…it’s for our people that have retired.
“What’s the most important legacy we will have in Ocean County? It’s how we take care of our senior citizens.”
Vicari believes that the nutrition program is a cost efficient way to service the senior population, noting it is cheaper to provide food for one-year for a senior then it is to cover the cost of a day in an emergency room.
Jumping on the opportunity to do right by this important, and sizeable, population within Ocean County, The Board of Chosen Freeholders awarded a contract to Ranco Construction, Inc., of Southampton for $950,500 to renovate the building, which once housed a gymnasium.
The work included reconfiguring the inside of the building to provide 2,000 square feet of additional service area for the county’s senior nutrition program allowing for expanded meal preparation. The project also included creating storage facilities, expanding administrative space for client services, more refrigeration, lowering the ceiling of the facility and the installation of sprinklers – a major safety upgrade.
Although it was only a few dozen seniors that came out for the ribbon cutting ceremony on May 14, the renovated center can house more than 200 people for social, educational, or physical activities. Seniors anywhere from Lacey Township down to Little Egg Harbor come to use the space.
“The socialization, recreation, educational programs and health screenings that are offered at this nutrition site and others around the county provide many benefits for our seniors and help to keep them active,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director Virginia E. Haines. “With more than 173,000 seniors living in Ocean County, the senior programs and services under the leadership of Freeholder Vicari are second to none.
The center offers programs for “the newly arrived senior” to those reaching 100 years old, said Haines, so that every bracket of the senior population can find something to satisfy their needs.
A major facet of the operations at the new senior service center is the meal production and delivery. Meals are prepared and delivered by the staff at Community Services Inc. of Ocean County (CSI), also known to some as Meals on Wheels.
“Each year we serve over 220,000 hot and nutritious meals to over 8,000 seniors while traveling more than 340,000 miles to deliver them. Every day, we’re fulfilling our purpose – to feed every senior who needs our services,” stated the CSI website.
Executive Director of CSI, Jim Sigurdson, thanked the county officials involved in the project for understanding the significance of what it means to serve senior citizens. To Sigurdson, there is nothing more important.
Sigurdson paid thanks to “the cooking staff who show up every day at 5:30 to make sure those thousand plus meals are cooked, to my drivers who show up every single day, get rained on, get snowed on…to make sure that the people on their route get that meal, who pay attention when they walk in the home to that senior, to notice whether there are changes or differences in that senior’s behavior,” as well as the staff on sight.
CSI maintains 54 employees, 32 vehicles, and 8 locations to service every square mile of Ocean County.
As Vicari mentioned, this area was a hotspot during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Sigurdson noted that this is in no way missed by CSI.
“We beat the Red Cross; we were on the ground serving meals two days later,” he said.
The service center will now also serve as an emergency operations center, powered by two generators during power outages.
The ribbon cutting ceremony was closed out by speaker Felix Martinez, a participant in the nutrition program since October 2017. “I’d like to express my gratitude on behalf of all of the members for everything this center and staff represents,” said Martinez. “This is our community meeting place and lunch site. Here, we can develop friendships and acquaintances…we can exercise both body and mind.”