Cramped quarters: Voluntary Action Center fundraises for new kitchen

Employees at Voluntary Action Center describe their 2,000-square-foot kitchen as “tiny,” “inefficient” and “essentially the size of a closet.”

A large 12-by-12-foot walk-in freezer takes up much-needed work and storage space, and refrigerators and freezers line the wall of TransVAC’s bus garage because of the lack of space inside the kitchen building.

“More space, we need more space, lots of space,” VAC Volunteer Services Coordinator Ron Mullen said.

Each day, VAC, which is at 1606 Bethany Road in Sycamore, makes more than 800 meals for local programs, businesses and organizations, and an average of 200 meals for Meals on Wheels.

VAC daycare cook Ronda Toepper describes work as “dancing around.” As she makes lunches for local child care centers, any number of the 15 kitchen workers, including cooks, the dishwasher and Meals on Wheels drivers, can pass in front of, next to or behind her, carrying trays, pots and pans or food.

“It’s hard to find places to put and store utensils and items,” she said. “The space is really tight. Movement is challenging.”

Inside the building’s office area, three workers sit in the three corners not occupied by a door. One of the walls is shared with the kitchen’s freezer, and a space heater is needed to keep the tiny 200-square-foot office warm.

“There’s no privacy, we’re always bumping into each other and we can usually hear every word of everyone else’s phone conversations,” VAC Food Service Manager Amy Woods said. “It’s a good thing we all get along.”

VAC Executive Director Ellen Rogers has recognized the space shortage, and has been applying for state and local grants. Recent contributions include a $25,000 grant from the DeKalb County Community Foundation. About $20,000 more is needed to complete the $55,000 to $58,000 renovation.

“We need help from the community, because government funding just isn’t enough,” Rogers said. “We receive grants for some of our meals and programs, but the government doesn’t pay 100 percent. We are a nonprofit organization since we began in 1974, and we rely heavily on volunteers and monetary donations.”

The problem

VAC’s current kitchen building was completed in 1992 after a two-year capital campaign. The kitchen has had only minimal renovations in the past 25 years, such as heating and air conditioning repairs.

“When the kitchen was built, there was a vision of doing more with the space, but now we are doing so much more than we ever thought it would be,” Rogers said. “We built it with what money we had, and it became inadequate very quickly. Within five years, we maxed out the space, and now the kitchen and its equipment is aging.”

Soon after the kitchen was built, VAC was approached to help with the food for Two Rivers Head Start and for the DeKalb County Jail.

Cooks start at 6 a.m. every weekday, helping make the meals for the county’s senior luncheons, Meals on Wheels, local day cares, the USDA Summer Food program, summer camps and the jail. Food is obtained through a purchasing group, some food is donated by the Northern Illinois Food Bank, and Hy-Vee donates bread and bakery items for the senior program.

“We usually have five different meals to plate, which is quite a feat to do in that kitchen space and stay on a budget,” Rogers said. “We don’t use a cycle menu, we keep variety. All of the programs and meals have special guidelines. For example, we would give pork chops to the seniors, but not to the jail or day cares.

“It’s difficult to do all that we do in that kitchen, and I credit our amazing staff. They care very much about what they do, and they make do with the little space they have,” she said.

The solution

Rogers said to renovate the kitchen, work must be done in multiple stages. The first phase is to remove the large walk-in freezer. A new freezer outside of the kitchen’s entrance would free up space. The second phase is to remove older refrigerators and add a new walk-in unit.

The completion of the DeKalb County Jail’s renovations at the end of January will include a kitchen, freeing up space in VAC’s kitchen.

“Both the new freezer and refrigerator units will give us much-needed capacity,” Rogers said. “With more space, we can take in more food donations. Our current units are more than 30 years old and not energy efficient.”

VAC’s maintenance director Brendon O’Higgins said by removing the walk-in freezer, the kitchen will gain about 100 square feet of functional space.

“With basic renovations, we will have access for all deliveries to be made from the back to help create a better operational flow,” O’Higgins said. “Proposed renovations will also add office space, new paint, new lighting and we will have the ceiling retiled. The first step is to get us where we need space-wise, then we will fix the interior.”

The VAC building was built with a federal grant awarded to the county. The city of DeKalb is seeking federal and state funding for a transit facility. Land has been set aside by DeKalb County for the facility off Barber Greene Road and Peace Road.

“There is a tremendous government investment in transportation, but the money and grants are not the same for food and meals,” Rogers said. “We are trying to meet the greatest unmet needs of the people: food and transportation. We again turn to our generous community for support to help make our goals, projects and renovations possible.”

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