It started as a question.
When committee members who have overseen construction of a commercial kitchen at Zion Lutheran Church talk about the project, they say it all started with a question about food service needs at Kids of the Kingdom, the child care center based at the church.
The answer quickly became larger and more complicated than the initial question. And, in a sense, the answer continues to evolve.
“That question just kind of begat more questions,” said Bridget Lux, a committee member. “Like, ‘Wow, how would we accomplish that…. (Y)ou know, it’s just, that’s such a big question.
“But we decided to turn it into more of an aspirational conversation, like, well, what if we had a commercial kitchen? What might we do to serve our community?” Lux said. “There were 10,000 good ideas.”
Nearly four years after that initial question, Zion Lutheran Church’s commercial kitchen opened for business Aug. 13 as a meal preparation site for Lutheran Social Service’s senior nutrition program, LSS Meals. The $330,000 investment, funded by donations from church and community members, will serve seniors throughout Meeker County, and will eventually provide meals for the child care center.
And further down the road — once COVID-19 protocols allow — committee members hope the kitchen and its accompanying dining area becomes a kind of multigenerational café, where senior dining clients and children from the child care center dine and bond together. The facility fits for what LSS Meals calls its Community Bistro Dining Site.
“You know, food is an end to itself, but it’s also a means to an end,” Lux said. “So the other piece of it here is relationship building, community building. We’re so excited to finally get to that time. I don’t know what it might be, but someday, we’ll be able to dine together again.”
LSS Meals has provided about 200 meals per week to Litchfield residents, and expectations are that number will grow to 1,325 with the new kitchen. The meals are designed by a licensed, registered dietitian to provide healthy and nutritious meals for older adults and are available through community dining sites and home-delivered options, as well as drive-thru meal pickup options. LSS Meals serves 163 communities in 39 Minnesota counties.
Litchfield’s senior nutrition site had been at Litchfield Civic Arena, but the kitchen there was showing its age.
Marilyn Meline, a member of the Zion congregation, worked at the LSS site at the Civic Arena when the conversation started about the church’s kitchen in December 2017, and was well aware of the site’s limitations.
“We say the God moment was Marilyn … was at the Civic Center in the name of Zion partially,” Lux said. “And that created this connection with Lutheran Social Service.”
Soon the church and LSS began discussing a potential partnership, and “the conversation took on a whole new flavor.”
The Civic Arena kitchen was outdated and needed repair, while Zion’s kitchen “was on hospice,” Meline said. “We had so many issues that we needed to do something. And when LSS was willing to partner with us and contribute to bring in equipment, it just seemed like a good partnership.”
LSS had not used the kitchen at the Civic Arena for quite some time, and had instead been contracting with area caterers to prepare meals. Contracting with an outside provider added cost to the program.
“So that was another thing that spurred it on, to having a kitchen in Meeker County, because there were sites around us, (in addition to) Litchfield, we all needed a way to cook the meals more efficiently,” Meline said. “That was another reason that it was just perfect timing. It all seemed to make sense.”
In addition to what the new kitchen might mean to operational efficiency for the LSS Meals program, committee members saw the project as meeting a kind of spiritual mission.
“From Zion’s perspective, as this thing started to coalesce, and we started to have an actual project that we were faced with needing to do some fundraising, I think we just saw that this met our mission,” Lux said. “It was a way for us to walk in our neighborhood … walk with our neighborhood maybe is the better way to say it.”
But before moving ahead with the project, committee members needed to take the plan to the congregation for approval. After sharing the concept of the kitchen with the congregation, a vote was scheduled for Dec. 28 last year.
The vote on the project, which committee members said was somewhat controversial due to the significant change it would bring to the physical church but also its mission, was not as close as some expected it to be. Due to COVID-19 social distancing, the congregation met in the parking lot, listening to the question on car radios and casting ballots on a cold day at the end of December.
The measure passed with 95 percent support, 144 to 18.
“We decided we needed to do a congregational vote with a quorum, because this is kind of changing the trajectory of our ministry here at Zion,” committee member Missy Brock said. “I remember sitting out there thinking, ‘Oh, I hope we get, what is a quorum?’”
They counted only about 20 cars in the parking lot as the meeting time approached.
“And then, all of a sudden, we look out on Fifth Street, and the cars are backed up bumper to bumper,” Brock said. The stream of cars turning into the parking lot, stretching at least three blocks west from the church, validated the committee’s perspective about the significance of the project.
“We couldn’t start (the vote) on time, because so many people had to get parked,” Brock recalled. “But the cool thing, even cooler thing, was that that many people came, because the life and ministry of this congregation is important to them. It was pretty exciting. Overwhelming.”
The affirmative vote launched a months-long project to transform the kitchen and dining area that was complicated by COVID-19, miscommunication and other logistical challenges. They had custom-made appliances arrive that were the wrong size, furniture damaged in shipping and numerous other mishaps — obstacles that committee members can now share a chuckle about — that forced a projected June opening to be postponed to mid-August. But on Friday, Aug. 13, the kitchen was ready for its first run.
By all accounts, it performed to expectations, with LSS Meals staff, along with volunteers from Zion, preparing and packaging 372 meals for delivery. The number was larger than what originally was expected as the Zion kitchen provided meals for parts of Kandiyohi and McLeod counties as kitchens in those areas are under repair.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with Zion Lutheran Church,” said Chrissy Elton, regional manager for LSS Meals. “We’ve been working with volunteers from the Zion Lutheran Church community for several years already through our LSS Meals service in Litchfield, and they are amazing. We love working with them and are so excited to see how the Community Bistro Dining Site grows to become a great resource to the community.”
Committee members see endless possibilities for the facility, as they’ve begun conversations with Litchfield Early Childhood Family Education about collaborating on meals programs.
“This is kind of out in the vision,” said Cathy Haugo, another committee member. “We’ve talked about doing special events, and we’ll even open it up to the community of stay-at-home moms with preschoolers can come in and have a meal, and the grandparents.”
There’s something about how food nourishes the body and the spirit, they say.
“We’re just building on tradition,” Brock said. “I mean, we’re standing on the shoulders of people who valued food and kitchen and church. I think it’s a fresh new way … but we’re only here because of them.
“There’s nothing like sitting around a table over food, that builds community,” Brock added. “I think it’s gone hand-in-hand from the beginning of time, right? And food has always been part of what our church is all about.”
The cows of Downtown Cowtown are headed for the last roundup.
The molded fiberglass cows have been “pastured” throughout downtown Litchfield since late June, when they were positioned in front of various businesses and other locations by city and First District Association employees as part of a celebration of the dairy cooperative’s 100th anniversary.
But on Thursday, a city crew and FDA employees will corral the herd in Central Park, where each of the 18 cows will be auctioned off.
“This is so exciting for our community,” said Darlene Kotelnicki, a City Council member and member of Litchfield Downtown Council, who worked with First District’s Troy Gassman to coordinate the project.
First District Association was founded in 1921 and looked at a variety of ways to celebrate its centennial year in 2021. Downtown Cowtown was one of those ideas.
But beyond celebrating the dairy cooperative, Downtown Cowtown became a way to help nonprofit organizations in the community.
The fiberglass cows were paid for by contractors who worked on an expansion of the FDA plant, which is expected to increase the plant’s milk processing capacity from 5.8 million pounds to 7.5 million pounds per day. When they arrived in Litchfield earlier this year — after a weeks-long delay due to the Suez Canal being blocked in March — the cows were distributed to service organizations and nonprofits, whose members gave each cow its own unique look with paint jobs representative of the organization. Once decorated, they were placed at 16 locations in or near the downtown business district.
The life-sized cows and calves — eight adults and 10 calves — have been a popular attraction throughout the summer, especially in the early weeks after they were placed, with many people posting selfies of them with their favorite cow to social media.
Now, the cows will go up for auction, which will be preceded by a “parade of cows” from 1-4:30 p.m. Thursday in Central Park. Litchfield Downtown Council will serve complimentary lemonade during the viewing. In case of inclement weather, the event will move to Litchfield Civic Arena, Kotelnicki said. The auction will begin at 4:30 p.m. with auctioneers from Steffes Group running the sale.
Proceeds from the sale of each cow will go to the nonprofit group associated with that cow.
The Downtown Cowtown auction will be part of other “Thriving Thursdays” events, including live music by Sara Dollerschell and her daughters from 4-5:30 p.m. That will be followed by the band Flannel Flag at 6:30 p.m. In addition, Thrivent Financial will be selling hot dogs in the park.
Where will the cows be located after the auction? That will be up to the individuals or businesses who purchase them.
When it comes to a wellness/recreation center in Litchfield, ideas and opinions are diverse.
Litchfield City Council members spent about 30 minutes sharing their own ideas and those received from the public during a round table discussion that was part of their regular meeting Aug. 16.
City Administrator David Cziok moderated the discussion, giving each council member five minutes for an opening statement, which was then followed by a two-minute rebuttal, and finally two one-minute sessions.
The second extra comment round saw four of six members at the meeting pass – a sign, Cziok said, that the round table had achieved at least one of its stated goals of ensuring “the discussion is exhausted and no one wishes to speak any longer.”
The round table was suggested by Mayor Keith Johnson at a meeting two weeks ago, as a way to move forward on a wellness and recreation center.
Discussed for years, often as a kind of back burner or low priority issue, the wellness/recreation center took on greater immediacy when the Minnesota Legislature passed two bills earlier this year. One of them, the state bonding bill, provides a $5 million grant to the city to fund construction of a wellness center. The other allows the city to hold a referendum on a half-cent sales tax that could bring in up to $7 million to fund construction of a facility.
Language in the bonding bill grant requires the city to collaborate with Litchfield Public Schools in order to receive the funds.
Cooperation between the city and school is key, because of school leaders’ goal of replacing their current five-lane pool
But the city of Litchfield must be the driver behind a wellness/recreation center, which is why it is one of 33 items on the city’s five-year Capital Improvement Plan and what brought the round table discussion.
Council member Sara Miller was the first to speak on the topic — her name drawn from a box by Cziok, the method used to determine speaking order in the first two rounds. She described how as a “Facebook junkie,” she used the social media platform to invite several hundred people to a virtual event to share their ideas and opinions. The biggest takeaway, she said was that people “want some sort of pool, some sort of water” as part of the wellness center.
“Everybody I’ve talked to has been for this, for the health and wellness of the community,” Miller added later. “And giving everybody of all ages a place to go to get healthy and have the ability to have more activities with keeping a pool going.”
Every council member expressed support for a wellness center, though their visions ranged from minimal — a pool — to grandiose — a facility that included pool, basketball courts, raised walking track, and more. Some also questioned the cost of a wellness center, beyond the finances necessary to build one.
“Here is my greatest concern — and I think this is something that I’ve preached all along — it’s the operational deficit of this project,” Council member Ron Dingmann said.
Reviewing budget summaries from the city of Wadena’s recreation center illustrated his concern, Dingmann said. Built in 2015, the center’s 2021 budget, which he found online, showed an operational deficit of $183,000.
“Something happens to most of these, the newness wears off, you’re going to have people that are going to probably not get the membership after a couple of years, or they’re going to give up something else, such as maybe a golf membership,” Dingmann said. “But I truly feel that this concern can be addressed with a partnership with the school district and possibly the hospital to help us with some of this operational deficit, and I believe with that we can make this a reality.”
Council member Darlene Kotelnicki said she has been involved in many conversations and on committees regarding a pool and/or recreation center, and the “whole thing makes me flop back and forth like a fish on the bottom of a boat about supporting this project or not. The pros and the cons and the big unknowns make me nervous.”
She suggested that a lack of transparency has created significant confusion and misunderstanding about what exactly a wellness/recreation center would be.
“Basically the whole process to this point seems flawed, in my humble opinion. I’ve said that this is like the Litchfield Golf Course 2.0, I’m hearing so many different stories,” Kotelnicki said. “I can only compare it to this whole COVID situation nationally. Seriously, who do you believe anymore? This is how I feel. I’m very confused.”
She joined others in saying the city should act soon to open dialogue with other potential partners — like the school district, Meeker Memorial Hospital & Clinics, and Meeker County — to gauge interest in a facility.
“Are they interested,” she said. “Is their interest financial for construction only? Would they lease space? Are they interested in providing input in the planning process?”
Council member John Carlson shared comments he received from residents during his five-minute opening statement. Later, during a one-minute rebuttal period, he provided more of his own feelings about the need for a wellness center.
Having a son who played Division I football, Carlson said, he saw up-close the comparisons made between facilities at different colleges. He wasn’t a fan of the mindset, and yet, “it was real.”
Those comparisons, he said, are similar to what potential new residents might do when they visit and try to decide if they want to live in a city like Litchfield.
“I hate to compare it to that mindset but … people do look at that when they choose where they’re going to live,” Carlson said. “I truly believe, facility-wise, we’re pretty low, and people do look at that.”