Head Start 4 Hunger’s innovative meal subscription kit inspires, educates families how to cook together

Waldo Community Action Partners’ innovative meal kit educates families how to cook together

Fri, 12/07/2018 - 12:30pm

BELFAST—  For the past year, a bag of food and a specific recipe have come home each week with Crystal and Tai Ivers’s young sons, Noah, 3 and Gerald, 5, from the children’s Head Start program, thanks to a new pilot project from Waldo Community Action Program (WCAP) called “Head Start 4 Hunger.”

The boys were excited to unpack the bag each time, for it meant they could do some of the chopping and prepping for the night’s dinner.

The project came out of a desire to do something similar to a weekend backpack program, however, WCAP did not just want to send food home. Around the same time, meal kit delivery systems such as “Hello Fresh” and “Purple Carrot” were having an impact on the way people cooked at home.

“I think subscription meal kits are a good idea, but they’re too expensive for most families in Maine with low incomes,” said Tabitha Lowe, WCAP Community Partnerships Director. “These families are often restricted to making meals based on what information and resources they have access to, especially in a rural community like this one, where many just don’t have the Internet at home to look up recipes. So, if they got a turnip in a bag of food, they might not even know what to do with it and give it away.”

“Head Start 4 Hunger” combines nutritious ingredients in meal kits they put together with recipes in order to introduce children and parents to new foods and cooking experiences, which will help combat food insecurity and obesity in Waldo county in the long-term.  

In 2017, WCAP’s Early Childhood Program, which oversees Head Start and Early Head Start in the area, served 206 eligible families in Waldo county.  Cherie Merrill, Early Childhood Nutrition Coordinator and Tabitha Lowe, Community Partnerships Director spearheaded the project, which is now in its second year.

The meal kits include a healthy recipe with nutritional information, developed by a registered dietician specifically for the project, and all the nutritious fresh ingredients, canned goods, and spices needed to prepare it.

Through a Federal Community Services Block Grant and a grant from United Midcoast Charities, 25 families (52 adults and 68 children) benefited from 924 distributed meal kits.

St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church has also donated funds and, in addition, their volunteers spend every Wednesday at WCAP to pack up the meal kit bags with WCAP staff helping to deliver bags when necessary.

Statistics don’t always show the whole story.

“I think the main thing is that families were having more bonding time cooking together,” said Lowe. “In one family, the bag of food would become part of this family’s cooking routine that one child, a five-year-old girl, looked forward to opening each week to see what they could make.”

“We made a lot of home visits to this particular family,” added Merrill. “The little girl was underweight and having a lot of issues. This family didn’t have a kitchen table; they didn’t have chairs. So with this program, the little girl began to get involved with cooking every night with her family. Long story short, we got them a table and chairs and they sat together at the table for dinner every night, not on the couch in front of the television. She’s now making progress toward a normal weight.”

The families surveyed from the program expressed their appreciation for the free service. “When food has been low before pay day, it helped,” said one respondent. Another added, “Some nights I didn’t know what we were having for supper and then the bag came home and saved us.” 

Beyond the meal kits, “Head Start 4 Hunger” also offered the parents a number of cooking and gardening classes, as well as parent field trips to explore new places such as the farmer’s market. “Sumer Bayer at WIC will do field trips with the families and show them how to use their SNAP cards at the Belfast Farmer’s Market,” said Merrill. “We also partner with Beth Chamberlin from SNAP Ed, and she does Hannaford Supermarket tours and in-person meetings in which she teaches families how to shop. Each participating adult also receives a $10 Hannaford gift card.”

The results of the pilot program’s family survey revealed that 73 percent of the families expressed their nutrition knowledge had improved with comments such as: “Didn’t realize the different foods you could combine to make a healthy meal” and “Learning that there was food we didn’t think we like, but we tried then to discover, we did.”

The program, which is the only one of its kind among Maine’s 10 Community Action Agencies, is ideal for replication. Merrill and the project’s registered dietician, Elisa Ross, have developed 24 new recipes for 2018-2019 such as Burritos with Fixings, Pumpkin Chili, and Tuscan Kale Tomato Bean Soup.

“We have made sure every recipe is WIC-approved, in some cases, replaced fresh meat with canned meat, such as tuna,” said Merrill. “It’s our hope that if they like the recipe, they’ll save it and be able to purchase the same items through WIC next time. We have also incorporated more fresh vegetables in the meal kit each year, which we get from Cross Patch Farms in Morrill, and each kit comes with a custom spice kit.”

WCAP’s innovative ideas for the project don’t stop there. “We will be eventually doing short YouTube videos on how to cook certain recipes and hope to create social media groups for participating families,” she said. “We really put a lot of thought into this because we wanted to be sure we were doing something that would address hunger long term and provide opportunities for children coming from generational poverty to widen their horizons,” said Lowe.

For more information visit: https://www.waldocap.org

Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com