Eastside students make meal kits for needy families

During a recent class period in the Institute of Culinary Arts (ICA) at Eastside High School, students were slicing, dicing and carefully measuring out carrots, rice, beef and other ingredients. But they weren’t planning to cook those items themselves. Instead, they were bagging them up with recipe cards so that economically challenged families would be able to cook their own tasty and nutritious meals.

The ICA is once again working with Karla P. Shelnutt, an associate professor at the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS), who studies nutrition and food insecurity. As part of her research, eligible families are provided with the ingredients they need to prepare healthy meals, much like HelloFresh, Blue Apron and other meal kit services that have become popular worldwide, but with one important difference—it’s all free.

“Our goal is to look at the impact of meal kits on the dietary and cooking behaviors of low-income families,” Shelnutt said. ”We want to remove barriers by providing the kits.”

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Once a week for six weeks, the students in the ICA will put together enough ingredients for families to prepare three healthy meals for four people. Each includes an easy-to-follow recipe card for such entrees as stir fry vegetables and beef or Spanish chicken with tomato sofrito sauce.

The meals are then delivered to the city of Hawthorne, where they are distributed to eligible families. The students are providing enough kits to create more than 250 meals each week.

“It makes me really happy that we’re able to help people right now, to feed people who need it and make sure they’re getting proper nutrition,” said junior Alia Pace. “It has more meaning than just the study.”

The students say preparing the kits involves a lot more than just tossing ingredients into a bag.

“It’s way more,” said junior Jay’Marlon Wilson. “We’re making sure they get the proper nutrition and that everything is healthy and safe.”

“The families have to get everything they need, and in the right amounts,” said chef Pam Bedford, who runs the ICA. “My students also have to think about packaging and how the food can be safely transported. There’s no room for error.”

This is the second year the ICA is participating in the study, which was funded last year through IFAS. With additional grant funds from the Walmart Foundation and the Florida Department of Education, the students are preparing more meals than last year and will also be continuing the program in the fall.

Shelnutt says the study has been expanded to include two other Florida high schools, one in Palatka and one in Ocoee in Central Florida. There are also plans for students in the agriscience program at Hawthorne Middle/High School to begin providing produce for the kits.

IFAS staff involved in the program say they’ve heard stories about families cooking together and children learning to follow recipes. Some participants have said they are even learning how to cook as a result of the program.

“It’s been very fulfilling to be a part of this project and see the impact it’s having on the families,” said UF doctoral student Kaley Mialki.

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