DENHAM SPRINGS — A long-cherished dream of the staff and board of directors of the Livingston Council on Aging became a reality April 13 when Kay Graham, executive director of the council, cut a symbolic ribbon signaling that the agency’s new kitchen at the Denham Springs Center was officially open and ready to serve the parish’s senior residents.

Assisting Graham were Denham Springs Mayor Gerard Landry, the kitchen’s chief chef, Jason Baglio, and the agency’s assistant director, Stephanie Landry. Members of the Livingston COA’s board of directors and guests cheered when Graham cut the ribbon. In announcing that the kitchen was open, Graham said, “after a long time waiting, planning and plenty of work, we now have our own kitchen that will meet a long-standing need for the way that we feed our dear senior citizens who depend on us for their meals.”

Graham said the Livingston COA has been reserving funds over the years for construction of the kitchen and remodeling of the center’s dining area and that actual construction had taken about three or four months to complete. The kitchen is equipped with the latest restaurant grade appliances and with a large walk-in cooler and freezer.

The kitchen will change the manner in which the council on aging feeds its hundreds of clients.

In an address to those attending the kitchen’s official opening, Baglio said the kitchen will meet two needs: the ability to prepare tastier and more nutritious meals that those now available through a regional vendor; and the necessity of saving money for the council on aging. Baglio said the council prepares between 400-600 meals daily for seniors who are served in different ways.

Before the coronavirus pandemic forced the center to cease feeding patrons at the center, seniors who had access to transportation could eat meals at the center five days a week. The center staff also delivered frozen meals to seniors who were homebound. The latter group was given 14 frozen meals every two weeks along with bread, milk and some other food items.

Once the threat of the virus has passed, seniors who can travel to the center will be fed meals cooked on site. Baglio said the food will be fresher, tastier and more nutritious than what was provided in the past. For the seniors who cannot access the center, staff will deliver meals cooked in the center’s kitchen and frozen for delivery in the new walk-in freezer. Those seniors who previously ate at the center will also be delivered frozen meals until the virus threat ends and they can return to the center.

Baglio said the staff began using the new kitchen on a trial basis in March and about 12,000 meals had already been cooked, frozen and prepared for distributions.

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“It has taken time, but we are now able to get away from outsourcing our meals and we are now able to much better monitor what we are serving our clients. We are assuring quality at a much lower cost that what the center had to pay before. All of the numbers are not in yet, we are still getting the program underway, but it appears that we will be saving about $15,000 a month,” Baglio said.

“We haven’t been doing this very long and already the response from our senior citizens has been overwhelming," Baglio said. "Our clients are telling us that the food is better and that they are very much pleased with the meals. It is a privilege and an honor to give back to our senior citizens who gave so much to the community and the nation during their productive years. We owe it to our elderly to do all we can for them and improving the food service is one way we can give back."

Sarah Easterley, chairman of the center’s board of directors, opened the morning’s program by observing, “I think that we are all excited to be here today. This is an important day for the Livingston Council on Aging. The staff, with the help of our board members and others, has taken a huge step forward with the opening of the new kitchen. The next big reason we will have to celebrate is when our senior citizens can return to the center."

Graham said many of the center's seniors are anxious to come back for their meals and the other services offered here.

Graham said her staff has worked “tirelessly” to stay in touch with the hundreds of seniors who seek a variety of services offered by the council on aging. She said that staff members stand ready to assist the elderly in any way that they can under the current conditions. She said older residents who cannot get out call upon the staff to pickup groceries, prescriptions and other items that are needed. The center’s staff also provides transportation for doctor’s appointments. Graham said the staff has used social media and telephone calls to provide games and contests with small prizes that the senior citizens enjoy.

“Many of our clients are lonely, they miss contact with their friends and with our staff. It is our duty to try and keep them engaged and happy. We want them to know that we are here to help them in any way that we can. Our new kitchen is only the latest way that we can make their lives at least a little bit better. Words can’t express how happy we are to now be able to cook our own meals right here in Denham Springs.”

The meals are provided to seniors for free. Graham said that when the center was open, a donation box was made available for clients who might feel the need to make a donation from time to time.

Besides the Denham Springs Center, the Livingston Council on Aging also served hot meals at the centers in Livingston, Maurepas and Springfield before the pandemic.