Leave the cooking to them
Chico State's Center for Healthy Communities offers fresh, made-from-scratch meals for pickup
With goals centered around promoting healthy and active lifestyles in and around Chico, the Center for Healthy Communities has implemented over half a dozen projects in its 14 years. The newest, Fresh Pick, launched last month. Its purpose is to provide healthy, made-from-scratch meals to working individuals and parents who may not have the time to cook for themselves.
“Most families now have two parents working outside of the home and the last thing you want to hear at 5 p.m. is, ‘What’s for dinner?’” said Kristin Gruneisen, program supervisor for CHC, a nonprofit that operates under the support of Chico State’s Research Foundation.
CHC operates many other successful programs, including its Get Cookin’ classes, where participants get free lessons and tips on preparing budget meals, and the Harvest of the Month and Farmer of the Month programs, which partner with local farmers and gardens to educate students about the benefits of healthy, local nutrition options. But it was the success of Senior Meals that inspired the development of Fresh Pick. Partnering with Passages at Chico State, CHC has worked with Senior Meals for the last two years to provide daily made-from-scratch lunches to senior citizens around Butte County. According to Gruneisen, the positive feedback was enough to get the organization thinking about expansion.
“We were recognizing that we and [the community] liked what we were cooking and wondered, ‘How can we expand this to help working families?’” Gruneisen said.
Fresh Pick hopes to fill that need, at least twice a week. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, between 4-6 p.m., customers can pick up preordered, premade meals for $9 a plate. The current fall/winter menu features six dishes chosen by production manager Sheena Gruenberg, and prepared by local chef Jessica McDougall using rented space at Italian Guy Kitchen. Depending on the day, customers can sample from pork and veggie enchiladas, a barbecue bowl, savory meatloaf, the Chico Harvest bowl, Thai chicken bowl and black bean butternut squash chili, five of which are available in vegetarian options.
“I picked recipes that I felt as a working mom I wouldn’t make during the working week because it involved a lot of labor. It was also important to make these meals healthy while still tasting delicious and looking visually appealing,” Gruenberg said. All dishes are made from scratch, down to the balsamic vinaigrette and pan-roasted yams, with Chico State interns occasionally helping with cooking and packaging. And like their other meal services, the initial feedback looks promising.
“This is the third time I’ve bought meals from Fresh Pick, and they’ve all been really good,” local customer Patrick Doyle said last Tuesday evening while picking up two orders of the meatloaf. “And the enchiladas? Oh, my goodness. I think I bought four of those last time, two of which were for people who don’t usually like enchiladas, and they loved them.”
Launched on Nov. 10, the program is still in the infancy stages, but Gruneisen says customer growth is already apparent. “We sold 82 meals the first week and the second week was 90. Our eventual goal is 140 a week.” As the program expands, Gruneisen hopes to focus on cooking with local ingredients. “Purchasing locally is the ultimate goal, but we’re not there yet. We do it when we can, like using Lundberg rice for our Chico Harvest bowl. Eventually we’d like to be buying from the local markets.”
Reaching that goal will become easier as Fresh Pick increases its customer base and, in turn, its revenue. The proceeds from the meals go back into CHC, helping subsidize the many costs that come with running a nonprofit. “To implement all we do, there’s a price tag, so it’s nice to offset some of that. We can generate more support for Senior Meals and our kids programs with the help of Fresh Pick.”
At $9 a plate, Gruneisen says the price may not be ideal for students, but is still reasonable compared to most restaurant prices. “Aside from restaurant take-out options, I don’t know of many services like it in the area. There are programs like Blue Apron, where they send you the recipes and ingredients, but you still have to deal with the cooking and cleanup.” Dream Dinners, a similar service offered in Redding, encourages customers to consolidate their meal prep time by dropping by the center and cooking several meals at once, with the intention of being frozen for later use.
While there are dozens of other food services around Chico offering quick meal fixes, from take-out to fast food, it’s the nutritious component of a homemade meal that may set Fresh Pick apart. “The healthiness and convenience of these meals—that’s the best part given today’s lifestyle,” said Doyle. That lifestyle, of course, is the one that keeps most families so busy that the drive-through line often seems like the most appealing option come dinner time. But made-from-scratch meals from Fresh Pick let customers trade the preservatives for more wholesome choices.
As a working parent herself, Gruneisen says she’s also become a customer. “Even as someone who likes cooking, it’s nice to have a break sometimes.”