Camden County has announced plans to build a new center for community nutrition named after Lawnside’s mayor Mary Ann Wardlow, a longtime advocate for nutrition and reduction in food insecurity.
The $5 million building will be located at 508 Lakeland Road in Blackwood and is expected to be completed next spring. A fall opening will follow. Funds for construction came from the federal government as well as community funding and block grants.
The center will house the existing hot meal delivery program previously known as Meals on Wheels, currently in operation at three congregate nutrition sites that are at capacity in Lawnside, Blackwood and Pine Hill.
“Right now, we’re looking to use existing staff and leverage the programs we already have to be able to, with this facility, continue providing services, just in an expanded capacity,” explained Caryelle Lasher, director of the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
Lasher noted that by moving the food services to a new building, space will be available in the existing facility to increase direct services and social programming for seniors.
The program is now geared to those who are 60 plus and who are outside eligibility requirements, as well as any disabled adult caregiver of someone who is over 60.
“In Camden County, we don’t want anyone to go without, so if there’s someone who needs a hot meal who’s kind of outside the eligibility, we use county funds to ensure they have a hot meal as well,” Lasher noted. “For state and federal programming, we stick to the very strict eligibility requirements.”
The nutrition program currently serves more than 2,000 people and is operating in a space with fewer than 300 square feet; the new facility will have 7,500 square feet. It will support meal assembly and distribution for the food delivery program, along with storage for frozen, refrigerated and dry foods. It is expected to serve 300,000 meals annually by 2025.
During a site unveiling for the new building earlier this month, a number of people praised Wardlow for her efforts over the years to organize and advocate for Meals on Wheels and create a congregate site for nutritional programs in Lawnside at the Wayne Bryant Community Center.
“To name (the nutrition center) after her in her honor, it’s nothing short of long overdue,” said Congressman Donald Norcross. “She understands what it’s like to go door to door to talk to neighbors and has done so for decades.”
Camden County Commissioner Louis Cappelli Jr. recalled how things had been especially hard for seniors during the pandemic, but Wardlow continued to find ways of getting food to people.
“She was, every day, advocating for the folks of Lawnside and for Camden County, and she has really dedicated almost her entire adult life to helping people,” he observed. “So it’s really appropriate that we name this nutrition center after her today.”
The need for the program is demonstrated by the 30- to 40%-increase in this year’s participants alone, and its impact has been huge for seniors living on their own.
“I had seniors that right now they live by themselves, don’t have anybody at all,” Wardlow mentioned at the unveiling. “They’re not that mobile; we get them to go as much as they can to go places.”
She noted how COVID was the worst time for those seniors.
” … It’s a very hard feeling when you have nobody, nobody that comes and checks on you,” Wardlow pointed out. “The only thing you can do is try and get to church, you may get over to the store. That’s a hard life to live, so this community nutritional spot will be able to help people.
” … The center will serve as a lasting testament to all of our dedication and contributions to this important cause.”