Connie was looking for a way to introduce her family of five to healthy new foods and fresh ingredients so that she could teach her children to appreciate a variety of foods at an early age.
Enter East Side Table, a community partnership operated by the East Side Health and Well-being Collaborative and led by M Health Fairview. East Side Table was launched to bring health and nutrition solutions to communities in St. Paul
Connie and her children soon began attending cooking demonstrations hosted by East Side Table. Eager to take her cooking skills home to her own kitchen, she also enrolled in East Side Table’s Make-at-Home Meal Kits program.
The Make-at-Home Meal Kits program provides people and families who qualify on the East Side of St. Paul with culturally appropriate seasonal meals and home cooking resources at no cost. During the eight-week program, participating people and families receive weekly recipes and complete ingredient kits for the meals, which are tailored for the needs and the size of each household.
The recipes are drawn from a variety of cultures, including Latino/Latinx, Hmong, Karen, African American/Black, and East African/Somali traditions. The ingredients come from a diverse range of local growers and producers. Rich with healthy nutrients, the recipes include fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins, dairy, and spice blends—ingredients that are not always available at food shelves or shelters.
In addition to the kits, the program also offers larger Make-At-Home Meal Boxes that include 12 servings of ingredients for home-cooked meals. Participants can pick up the boxes at several local community organizations or receive direct home delivery. Together, the Meal Kit and Meal Box program provides meal kits for 350 families per week.
Like many other community services, East Side Table has adjusted to changes brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Because the pandemic has deeply affected the health and economic wellbeing of marginalized communities, the number of people who need food support has grown.
Fortunately, funding provided by Ramsey County through the CARES Act has made it possible for East Side Table to expand. This winter, the program helped deliver 1,200 warm meals made with fresh ingredients to people experiencing homelessness in St. Paul. Menus include nourishing dishes like crunchy baked fish with sweet potatoes, roast beef and mashed potatoes, and stir fry.
Many people are spending more time at home due to COVID-19 social distancing precautions, so the program has also found creative new ways – like interactive cooking demonstrations broadcast on Facebook Live – to connect with the communities it serves.
In order to offer improve food access and create long-term solutions, the program is also teaching families to cook together at home in order to learn new skills. In an East Side Table survey, nearly 40 percent of participating people said they learned a new food skill. More than 80 percent reported that their family was willing to try new, healthier foods because of the program.
Connie and her family members enjoy cooking together and experiencing new foods like coconut milk, shallots, and Udon noodles. She appreciates the fresh ingredients and clear cooking instructions. Her young son loves helping prep vegetables, stir cooking pots, and set the table before family meals.
“My family looks forward to the days we pick up the meal kits,” Connie said. “I call the day ‘Test Kitchen Mondays.’ It’s been nice to see my kids so open to new possibilities.”