Inspired by the popularity of meal kit services, a pantry assistant in Madison, Wisconsin, created step-by-step kits that marry basic food pantry ingredients with creative recipe cards.
The Fritz Food Pantry in Madison prides itself on providing a wide variety of foods and ingredients to accommodate as many diets, allergies and food preferences as possible. Their approach speaks not just to the continuing hunger crisis exacerbated by the pandemic; food pantries like The Fritz have also been shown to have an important influence on the dietary health of their customers.
But just because a variety of healthy foods and ingredients are offered doesn’t mean that every visitor has the ability to put recipes together at home. So Abby Warfel, a volunteer turned part-time pantry assistant, had an idea: assembling step-by-step, HelloFresh-inspired meal kits.
“A lot of customers are short on time, right? Creative meal planning takes energy, but we all want to put together good meals for our families,” Warfel says. “So a meal kit seemed like a really good tool for them. We’re always working to make the pantry a place that is interesting, fun, pleasant and a space for community building — a vibrant place.” She saw the kits as a way to add to that.
Warfel’s original idea for inspiring customers to cook with pantry ingredients was placing take-home recipe cards on the pantry shelves alongside main ingredients for meals like nutrient-rich casseroles. But the recipe cards flopped, and customers didn’t take them like she had hoped. That’s when Warfel was inspired to eliminate the process of “shopping” for recipe ingredients by assembling them together in meal kits.
When Warfel assembled the first 25 kits for shepherd’s pie earlier this year, they flew off the shelves — a raging success.
Jim, a food pantry customer from nearby Fitchburg, made one of the original 25 kits and loved it. “It was really easy to follow and put together. Once you make your meat mixture, you add the vegetables and put your mashed potatoes on top. It was a piece of cake,” he says. “The recipe was so simple I could do it with my eyes closed.”
The meal kits are simple—necessary ingredients are packaged up in a brown paper bag, and a printed recipe card is stapled to the outside. Warfel’s goal with the kits is to not only use up the items and ingredients readily available at the time, but to also craft recipes that are easy and flexible.
“The most recent kit we did was for sheet pan roasted chicken and veggies,” she says. She wrote the step-by-step recipe with alternatives and additional options built in. “If you’d prefer something besides chicken thighs, you can get a can of chickpeas or garbanzo beans instead. If you have fresh garlic in your pantry, that would be great to add in, but if you don’t it will be fine.”
So far, the meal kits have begun adding to the sense of community at the pantry like Warfel hoped they would. The shepherd’s pie recipe piqued the interest of some of the pantry’s Spanish-speaking customers. “Some of them were like, ‘no, thanks,’ but others were like ‘alright, I’ll give it a whirl.’”
That customer response led Warfel to a third idea. “That’s what got me thinking that we needed to think more broadly,” Warfel says. “I want every customer to feel valued and to value our other customers and their experiences. I think food is a great window into other people’s cultures.”
While the kits have come with instructions in both English and Spanish, the pantry’s customers are more varied than that. Warfel describes The Fritz as the most diverse place she’s encountered in Madison. “There are people of all ages and an enormous variety of ethnic and cultural traditions, from young families to seniors. There’s a lot of vibrancy in that, so we’re starting to collect recipes from some of our customers” for future meal kits, she explains. “We have a lot of recent immigrants from different Latin American countries, for example. I don’t know a lot about Colombian cooking, but our customers do.”
It’s thanks in part to efforts like these that customers like Jim feel like they’ve found support during difficult times in the pantry’s community.
After the economic crisis brought on by the pandemic brought him and his family to the pantry, “we’ve met people and it’s become like a little community. You find out that you’re not the only one struggling, but other people are, too. You get to share stories and get to know other people’s lives,” he says. “Your world can be expanded by going to the panty and getting the items you need.”
Not only does it help Jim’s family budget during a difficult time, but it allows them to stretch their own resources to cook for a neighbor who has muscular dystrophy.
Soon, thanks to Warfel’s expanded menu of internationally-inspired meal kits, Jim might be cooking up Colombian or Persian meals for his family and neighbor.