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Meals on Wheels Looks for New Home

By Gathering Marbet
Special to The Lookout

July 18 -- After serving meals to the homebound for more than 32 years, Santa Monica's Meals on Wheels will soon be losing its home.

The pending sale of The First Christian Church, where the agency has its offices and food distribution center, has staff members scrambling to find a new location.

Faced with a shrinking congregation, the church has chosen to shut its doors and sell its property on 6th and Arizona Avenue, rather than struggle to come up with expensive property taxes.

"April 19th we got notice that we would have to leave and that we had 60 days," said Rosemary Regalbuto, executive director of Meals on Wheels West. "We've negotiated with the church and they have given us some additional time."

That however, came with a price -- an almost doubling in rent from $1,750 to $3,000 a month.

"That's a lot of money for us," Regalbuto said. "We can feed somebody for a year for $2,190. . . And look what we're paying for rent. It's mind boggling."

Church officials declined to comment.

The increase and the eviction happened right at the end of the fiscal year, Regalbuto said. This sent the agency scrambling to cover its projected moving costs to another Santa Monica location.

In addition to existing rent and meal costs, the agency - which serves several Westside communities -- will likely have to pay for utilities, something it has never had to worry about.

Regalbuto immediately began her search to relocate in April, looking at City owned properties and other churches, only to run into dead ends.

City officials said they would like to help Meals on Wheels relocate, since they receive City funding.

"We are certainly interested in them staying local," said Judy Rambeau, the City's spokesperson. "We will help them any way we can."

Unfortunately all the leads to City owned property, such as the airport, have been unsuitable or otherwise unavailable. So have the churches, which rent space for traffic school and AA meetings.

"All the churches rent out part of their space to different things," Regalbuto said. "There's schools that come in that aren't necessarily affiliated with the church, but in order to make ends meet they are renting out space."

One thing that Meals On Wheels does not have to worry about is finding a kitchen. All the meals it delivers are purchased from similar agencies or local hospitals, or they are donated by local businesses, such as hotels.

What the agency does require is 1,100 to 1,400 square feet of office space and -- even harder to find but crucial to its pick-up and delivery methods -- a loading area, currently the church parking lot.

That is where volunteers congregate five days a week to load up plastic trays filled with hot and cold nutritious meals, some made for special needs, such as low-fat, low-cholesterol and low- sodium diets, as well as meals for diabetics.

The heart of the non-profit organization, and the majority of its funding, has always come from Santa Monica. It is also where most of its clients reside.

However, Meals on Wheels also serves Pacific Palisades, Topanga and Malibu.

Clients pay $6 a day for two meals, but the agency tries to accommodate everyone depending on their needs and income, Regalbuto said. The amount, however, doesn't cove the full cost of the meals.

Meals on Wheels receives most of its money from grants, the County, fundraising and foundations. The agency also relies on donated services and private funds.

"I just got a call today from the Rotary Foundation of Santa Monica that they were going to give us $15,000 to help us with our relocation," said Regalbuto. "Which is really nice."

Especially since Regalbuto says that they must raise an extra $250,000 this year, something that makes her "nervous."

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