Local Food Activists Developing Frozen ‘Real Meals’ for Food Banks

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Food banks are a godsend to families who have fallen on hard times, but they are often limited in the products they can give away, typically canned soups, powdered mixes like macaroni and cheese, and other preserved goods.

But now a nonprofit organization has developed a line of highly nutritious, vegetable-laden frozen foods for seniors, homeless people and low-income families who rely on emergency food supplies.

The organization, OC Food Access Coalition, has been testing a number of dishes for the last year, fine-tuning 15 recipes that range from spaghetti and meatballs to Moroccan spiced meatloaf with carefully selected ingredients that are locally grown whenever possible.

“The goal is to improve the nutritional quality of emergency food available so people aren’t relying solely on canned goods and dried foods, which are highly preserved. We’re trying to provide more fresh food,” said Gillian Poe, executive director at OC Food Access.

While not exactly fresh, foods frozen using the latest technologies can preserve nutrients effectively, she said. Frozen dishes are especially useful to families lacking access to full cooking facilities due to living in shelters, motels or overcrowded apartments.

Each individual serving comes in a bowl and generally contains a lean protein, whole grain and lots of vegetables, some of them cleverly disguised.

In the spaghetti dish, for example, “When we made our red sauce, we worked in as many carrots and peppers as possible,” Poe said.

A research and development chef used herbs and spices to boost flavors while reducing the high salt content that is common in dried and canned goods.

Over the past year, some 250 people have been eating and providing feedback on OC Food Access’s line of frozen foods, called Real Meals. The organization’s chef has tinkered with recipes to adjust to a variety of tastes and needs.

For example, seniors like the chicken pot pie but must avoid high sodium content, and Latino families favor familiar dishes.

Spice levels vary. “Seniors don’t like the heat,” Poe said. “Latin families like to kick up the heat.”

If the dishes sound carefully flavored with herbs and spices not typically seen in emergency food provisions, that’s by design, Poe said.

“I would not call these gourmet meals. These are real meals, real food. It’s simple food put together well and preserved through quick-chill technology,” she said. “Everyone deserves access to healthy food and nourishing food.”

In addition to distributing Real Meals to food banks, OC Food Access is working out an arrangement to sell them at a local grocer, with a portion of proceeds going back into the Real Meals initiative.

Along with feeding the needy, OC Food Access hopes to change the collective mindset regarding what food is considered normal and generate awareness of food issues relating to hunger, the environment and better nutrition.

“A lot of fast food is considered normal, and it isn’t even close to being real food,” Poe said. “We want to transform the local food system so people of all means have access to sustainable, healthy and culturally appropriate food they can afford.”

Additionally, Poe said, people need a better understanding of the connection between poor diet and excess weight, since obesity is not what most people picture when they imagine malnutrition.

“We don’t have a hunger epidemic in the traditional sense, but we have a malnourishment epidemic that leads to obesity, diabetes, hypertension and other diet-related disease,” Poe said.

— AMY DePAUL

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