M Health Fairview is taking a unique approach to addressing food insecurity through its Community Cooks Meal Box program, and we are proud to have been a wholesale partner since the program began in 2020. Our partnership has facilitated contracts with over 50 local farmers and food producers in our network, sourcing nearly 70 unique items through our food hub just this year. These contracts not only provide reliable markets for local BIPOC and emerging farmers but also ensure access to a steady supply of fresh local produce, including culturally relevant crops often unavailable through commercial food distributors.
Recognizing that access to food is a key social determinant of health, M Health Fairview designs their meal boxes to address the challenges of time, motivation, and expenses that often hinder families from preparing scratch-made meals at home. By recognizing that lack of food access isn’t merely a lack of culinary skills, the program instead centers on preserving the dignity of individuals and families and celebrating a diverse array of recipes from around the world. Some of the recipes that have been in the boxes this year include Braised Collards over Grits, Red Lentil Dal, Moussaka, Coconut Curry, and Seasonal Vegetable Stir Fry. In taking this approach, Community Cooks Meal Boxes are meant to boost confidence in the kitchen and foster a sense of pride, cultural richness, and inclusivity in the act of preparing and enjoying meals at home.
Katie Herrick, the Community Advancement Coordinator at M Health Fairview, serves as our primary contact for the program, collaborating with us and other vendors to source a mix of fresh ingredients and pantry items needed to make the recipes in each weekly box. Recently, when we visited Fairview’s Community Health and Wellness Hub in Downtown St. Paul, the recipes being packed up for that week were Tofu Banh Mi and Root Vegetable Stew, with each recipe making six servings in an hour or less. Produce sourced from us that week included rutabagas from Seeds Farm, organic celery root and garlic from Open Hands Farm, and carrots from Yee Moua, Naton Vang, and Choua Yang. Along with the produce, each box contained a quart of broth, a can of tomato paste, a bottle of rice wine vinegar, chile sauce, a block of tofu from Minn Tofu, and sandwich rolls from Bakersfield Flour.
At the wellness hub, Katie leads a dedicated team of World Youth Connect members in packing meal boxes, anywhere from 400 to 800 boxes a week, with the right quantities of each ingredient. At the end of the bustling box-packing line, efficiently stacking boxes was Markell, a member of World Youth Connect who has packed thousands of meal boxes at the hub for two seasons now. He’s seen locally grown crops like bok choy, kale, tomatoes, okra, Malabar spinach, sweet potatoes, eggplant, zucchini, hot peppers, and more get packed up into each box. Some produce items are more fun to pack than others: oranges are a favorite for the scent that fills the air, and heads of lettuce are his least favorite as they tend to get the boxes a little damp. His dedication, and that of the entire team, reflects the ongoing commitment of individuals contributing to the success of this initiative which addresses food insecurity in our community through a lens of dignity and joy.
Beyond sourcing from The Good Acre and getting assistance with box packing through World Youth Connect, the Community Cooks Meal Box program is made possible through the collaborative efforts of The Sanneh Foundation, Appetite for Change, East Side Table, and Transforming the Table. These collaborators support the logistics, distribution, recipe development, and community engagement components of the program, with each partner standing united in a common goal – ensuring that nutritious meals reach those in need within our community. Of the collaborative approach, Jenny Breen from Transforming the Table says “I take pride in being a part of this initiative as it embodies the essence of food systems in action, spanning production, aggregation, distribution, preparation, and consumption. Every decision, from recipe choices and food sources to the content we share, has a purpose that is driven by a set of values that contribute to the goal of building an equitable, sustainable, and community-centered food system.”
As M Health Fairview completes its fourth year of the Community Cooks Meal Box program, we reflect on the substantial impact achieved through our partnership, with nearly $700,000 invested in supporting local growers since the start of the program. In the vibrant tapestry of community-driven food access initiatives in the Twin Cities, the story of M Health Fairview’s Community Cooks Meal Box program stands out as a beacon of collaboration, compassion, and unwavering commitment. Beyond the recipes and ingredients, this program is a testament to the resilience of the human spirit, nourishing not only the bodies but also the pride and cultural richness of our community—one meal box at a time.