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– Population declines and poverty cost this tiny Todd County town its grocery store and high school years ago, but those who remained pulled together and continued to feed their neighbors in need.

Now, they think maybe they can feed people anywhere in Minnesota.

The idea grew out of a frozen-meals program started by Medica to ensure that its patients in rural “food deserts” get proper nutrition to keep them out of the hospital. The program initially relied on a for-profit vendor but is now run by Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota (LSS).

In January, the nonprofit agency conducted what it calls a soft launch of its new “Meals to Go” program, offering UPS delivery of 35 frozen menu items to 39 communities in five of the state’s poorest counties: Cass, Clay, Pipestone, Todd and Wadena. LSS selected those counties because it had a hard time getting volunteer drivers in those rural areas to deliver its Meals on Wheels program, said Kristin Schurrer, senior director of LSS Meals.

After shipping some 400 frozen meals, the agency now plans to offer the home-delivery service to anyone, anywhere in Minnesota. A package of 14 frozen meals cost $125.99, or about $9 a meal, including shipping.

“Each meal is dished up by hand,” Schurrer said. “My kids love these meals.”

Charlotte Lamb, 75, of Monticello, said she started getting meals through Medica when she returned home from the hospital and couldn’t cook for herself.

“I thought it would save my daughter some work,” Lamb said.

After Lutheran Social Service took over the food preparation, the meals improved, she said, and she decided to keep them coming.

“I get them every 14 days and they’re always excellent,” Lamb said.

Her favorites?

“Meatballs, meatloaf, spaghetti. You name it, they’re good. They’re all homemade.”

Climbing the hill

The meals are prepared by about a dozen workers at the Hilltop Regional Kitchen, a nonprofit service for seniors that took over the industrial-arts wing of the old Eagle Bend High School and converted it into a community dining room with a commercial kitchen.

Rick Hest, a retired social studies teacher at the high school and president of the Hilltop Regional Kitchen board, said the group’s former site — a 375 square-foot kitchen in a century-old building that housed the senior center — was full of worn-out equipment that kept falling apart.

“We had to either update or get out,” Hest said. “We thought, ‘How can we fix a problem every small town has and not bleed ourselves dry?’ You wanted to make sure those vulnerable people we serve were less vulnerable.”

Hest said there was no way the small nonprofit kitchen could afford the $850,000 needed to rehab 4,000 square feet of space in the high school for a dining room and a modern, commercial kitchen. So the board reached out to several counties, cities and state governments and anyone else who might help contribute.

“It was going to take the assets of multiple communities, merged together, to have any hope at all,” Hest said.

The fundraising catalyst finally came from a $465,000 grant from the South Country Health Alliance, an insurance group based in Owatonna, Minn., that wanted to invest in small towns by putting abandoned buildings to public use, he said.

Hilltop Kitchen opened in its new location in January 2018. It served 55,000 meals last year and will likely serve at least 60,000 this year, Hest said. The kitchen has the capacity to serve 100,000.

In addition to LSS Meals to Go, it serves 30 to 50 communal meals a day in the “LSS Bistro” dining area next to the kitchen. And volunteers deliver LSS Meals on Wheels to Wadena, Verndale, Staples, Motley, Bertha, Hewitt, Eagle Bend, Clarissa, Browerville and Long Prairie.

There’s a suggested donation of $4 a meal for people 60 and older, though they can get $3.50 of that reimbursed through a federal grant program. Diners younger than 60 are asked to contribute $7.35 for each meal. The kitchen accepts Alternative Care Program and Elderly Waiver payments for meals.

Terri Weyer, program director and nutritionist at Hilltop, said there were times when she didn’t think the project would work, like when the roof over the dining area failed, damaging some of the new drywall.

“It was a dream five years ago, and here we are,” Weyer said. “There is a little magic in Eagle Bend.”

Hest agreed.

“Our bedrock has been this relatively small crew from Eagle Bend who just wouldn’t give up,” he said.

LSS is considering new ways to market the kitchen’s services, such as catering funerals, Schurrer said. And she noted that there’s talk of rehabbing the adjacent high school building as senior housing.

“Now we’re in conversations with other communities where schools have closed down, or nursing homes that have closed down,” Schurrer said. “They’re looking at replicating this.”

Dan Browning • 612-673-4493