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New $2.6 million kitchen open in Gwinnett to cook senior meals

Food Service Program Coordinator Steve Nelly provides a tour to Buffy Alexzulian, Mary Presley, Maria Woods, Beth Horacek showing the Gwinnett Senior Services Center’s new 12,000 square foot commercial kitchen in Lawrenceville. The building addition costing $2.6 million, accommodates meal preparation and packaging for four senior centers and home-delivered meals clients in Gwinnett County. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

Food Service Program Coordinator Steve Nelly provides a tour to Buffy Alexzulian, Mary Presley, Maria Woods, Beth Horacek showing the Gwinnett Senior Services Center’s new 12,000 square foot commercial kitchen in Lawrenceville. The building addition costing $2.6 million, accommodates meal preparation and packaging for four senior centers and home-delivered meals clients in Gwinnett County. (Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan)

When Judy Waters’ elderly father moved into her basement apartment more than a decade ago, he worried what he would pay in rent.

Waters told him to put away the checkbook, but she had other concerns, leaving him during the day as she left for work, making sure he had his medicine, getting him to and from the doctor.

When he began receiving Meals on Wheels, at least one worry was relieved.

“It’s a blessing to be able to preserve that dignity,” allowing him to remain more independent, Waters said, as officials cut a ribbon on a commercial kitchen for Gwinnett County Senior Services in Lawrenceville. “That’s one less thing that a caregiver has to worry about.”

Waters, the chair of the aging committee for the Atlanta Regional Commission, noted that Gwinnett’s senior population has more than doubled from 46,000 in 2000 to 108,000 in 2013. The number is projected to reach 193,000 in 2020, as the “silver tsunamai” of baby boomers reaching 65 continues.

The new commercial kitchen, officials said Tuesday, helps to serve meals to seniors to allow them to remain at home, and also provides meals at Gwinnett’s four senior centers.

“It’s fiscally prudent and compassionate to be able to age in place in your own home,” said state Sen. Renee Unterman, who said the state spends $1,900 per person for a year of meals, respite care and transportation for seniors in their own homes, compared to paying $9,000 out of the average $30,000 annual cost for a nursing home bed.

Unterman, now the chair of the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, used to deliver bread and fruit to seniors in a program run out of her office when she was Loganville’s mayor more than two decades ago.

“I remember every loaf, every little house, every little lady waiting on the curb,” she said. “This is truly a dream come true.”

With two double-deck convection ovens, two combi-ovens, two double-deck steams, a 40-gallon tilt skillet, a six-burner stove, a 60-quart mixer, and 1,400-square-feet of freezer space, staffers began preparing 600 meals a day out of the Swanson Drive facility in January, although a snow storm delayed the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Federal officials, who delivered the nearly $2.6 million in construction costs from community development block grant funds, praised local officials for working together, creating a partnership among federal, state and local leaders, as well as volunteers for the programs.

“It is amazing that in these tough budget times … here we are with the capacity to do what no other community in this area can do,” Congressman Rob Woodall said. “That will all be for naught if we can’t come up with the dollars to run this program at full capacity. We need everyone in the community to be invested in this.”

While the nonprofit Friends of Gwinnett County Senior Services pitches in each year, including giving about $100,000 earlier this month to help cut down the waiting list, officials said more funding is needing to expand the programs to the kitchen’s 2,000 meals per day capacity.