ERSKINE, MINN. - What started as an effort to feed senior citizens one heated-up frozen meal a day has turned into a network of kitchens across Minnesota offering home-cooked fare.
Monica Douglas began working for the Senior Nutrition Program at Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota in the late 1970s. At the time, the job involved only four nutrition sites.
Now, she oversees nearly 170 sites in the northwest, central, south and southwest parts of the state.
"We actually serve almost a million meals a year," said Douglas, the program's senior director.
The food is either served up in small town cafes and community centers, or delivered to seniors who want to stay in their homes but can't cook for themselves.
Rita Trandem shows up at the community center in Erskine, Minn., daily.
"We can all get together every day and the meals are well-rounded and delicious. Everything is good," Trandem said.
The meals are made possible by a team of assistant directors and a staff of nearly 300 spread across those sites.
"They go far beyond what we expect of them. They're taking care of those senior adults as if they were family," Douglas said.
She said she enjoys visiting the sites personally to see what she describes as "heartwarming service in action."
Those days are numbered, however, for the Mahnomen, Minn., native and North Dakota State University graduate as she prepares to retire from her 40-year career at LSS on Friday, Jan. 19.
"It's bittersweet. I'm really going to miss the people," Douglas said.
The LSS Senior Nutrition Program had an inauspicious start, heating up frozen airline-style meals and serving them with disposable items. Then, Douglas decided to hire cooks to prepare their own food at central kitchens.
Later came a plan to set up meal sites in local cafes and community centers where seniors could dine at any time of the day, something she described as a "win-win" for her program and the cafes.
"In particular in the northwest, they could stay open during the winter because they had regular business, and they were helping us because they provided us with a licensed kitchen for our seniors," Douglas said.
Funding for the program comes from the federal and state government as a result of the Older Americans Act. The seniors pay what they can, putting their donations in a box.
"We don't discriminate based on income," Douglas said.
Early on, the cafe or community center meals, also referred to as "congregate dining," made up about 75 percent of the service.
Now, the split is about 45 percent congregate and 55 percent home-delivered meals.
That's a reflection of an aging but still healthy population wanting to stay in their homes.
Douglas said there are nearly 60 people over age 100 dining with them across the state.
In addition to providing a hot, home-cooked meal, the program also offers seniors a way to connect. For some, it's the only human interaction they'll have.
"That's why they come early, they play cards and they at least have a couple hours of socialization besides a good meal," said Laura Perkerwicz, who helps coordinate meals at the Erskine Community Center.
Folks who receive home-delivered meals also get that human touch.
Staff members will do a safety check to make sure they're okay. That way, family members know someone is looking in on their loved one every day.
With retirement looming, Douglas is ready to spend more time with her own family, including her husband, five children and ten grandchildren. But leaving her workplace of four decades will still be tough.
"The people I work around are like family to me. It's been an enjoyable journey," Douglas said.