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Fifteen paper bags sat on a table in the Westside Church food pantry Thursday, each one full of canned chili, large yellow squash and kale. Attached to every bag was a recipe for chili boats, which requires the chili to be prepared inside the squash.
The ready-to-make meals, similar to the national meal kit service Blue Apron, are part of a pilot program offered by the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance. The Bend-based nonprofit is using a portion of a recently awarded $362,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to launch the Fresh Harvest Kit program.
Each Thursday, the program uses produce from Seed to Table, a nonprofit farm in Sisters, and canned foods from the pantries at Westside Church and Kiwanis Club of Sisters.
Different ingredients are placed in the paper bags each week, and are available for those in need at the Sisters’ food pantries. Organizers hope to expand the program to other food banks across Central Oregon.
Meiko Lunetta, program coordinator at High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, said services such as Blue Apron are not being done in local communities, and the harvest kit program is the first of its kind in the nation.
“I haven’t been able to find an example of it in any other place in the country,” Lunetta said. “I couldn’t find any other food banks that are partnering with farms as well as another nonprofit to put these kind of kits together.”
Since the program launched about two months ago, organizers have filled about 30 kits each week. Every week is different with new ingredients and new recipes.“It’s a surprise each week,” Lunetta said.
Katrina Van Dis, executive director of the High Desert Food & Farm Alliance, said improving access to fresh foods is a huge part of the alliance’s mission. Many people cannot afford services like Blue Apron and the food being used is not local, she said. Van Dis sees the pilot program as a way to make a meal kit service local and affordable.
“I thought why can’t we do this for people of any income level,” Van Dis said. “And if you are putting together recipes with fresh food at a place where people are getting food, it makes sense.”
At the Westside Church food pantry, people sign up each week to reserve a meal kit.
Sisters resident Linn Watson, who retired to the community about two decades ago, arrived at the church Thursday to pick up one of the kits. She said the program is a great idea for people like her who can’t always afford to gather ingredients for a home-cooked meal.Watson doesn’t always stick to the suggested recipes, but the mix of ingredients gives her options. “I like the variety,” she said. “And I like all of the fresh food.”