Springfield Community Gardens and Eating the Ozarks are collaborating on a new project that supports local farmers and consumers across varying income brackets.
Still in the developmental stage, the organizations are working together to create Pack Meals, single-serving, nutrient-dense meals made with dehydrated, locally-sourced produce. They hope to provide Pack Meals to unserved communities, like the unhoused, and also sell them to folks interested in purchasing dehydrated backpacking meals at businesses like bicycle shops.
For the meals, ingredients from community gardens and local farmers and foragers, like Eating the Ozarks founder Rachael West, are dehydrated at the Springfield Community Gardens test kitchen inside Cox North Hospital. A few years ago, Springfield Community Gardens received a $40,000 grant from the Ozark Headwaters Recycling and Materials Management District for a program dedicated to the diversion of food waste, which has helped fund the Pack Meals project.
Initially, Pack Meals will be distributed to participants of CoxHealth’s HealthScripts program. This spring, Springfield Community Gardens and CoxHealth received a USDA grant to pilot HealthScripts, which supports roughly 100 Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)-eligible patients through healthy food and education, according to a CoxHealth news release.
HealthScripts participants receive weekly produce boxes filled with locally-grown fruits and vegetables. In addition to these boxes, participants meet regularly with CoxHealth physicians. West said starting in December or January, Pack Meals will be added to the produce boxes for participants to try. The physicians who work with HealthScript participants will also be able to purchase the Pack Meals.
Maile Auterson, executive founding director of Springfield Community Gardens, expressed excitement about both HealthScript participants and physicians offering their feedback on Pack Meals, which she hopes will break barriers between income margins for conversations about food equity and justice.
“Why can’t a person who is on SNAP have (the same) really cool, foraged meal that a person who maybe has discretionary income can go eat … or buy the groceries for?” Auterson asked.
The first Pack Meal that is in the works is Chive and Potato, made with wild garlic grass, foraged oregano, potatoes and salt. Packaged in a brown Mylar bag, the dehydrated ingredients are chip-like. The chips can be eaten dry, as is, or made into a soup or mashed potatoes with the addition of boiling water.
West said she has also experimented with dehydrating brown rice pasta for vegetable noodle soup and risotto for strawberry shortcake, using evaporated milk, spicebush and strawberries to make a tasty dessert.
Down the line, West and Auterson said they hope Pack Meals can be distributed through entities like Victory Mission + Ministry’s Mobile Food Pantry, Ozarks Food Harvest and the food pantry at the Midtown Carnegie Branch Library.
In addition to testing out different recipes, another phase of the developmental stage is the creation of Nutritional Fact Labels for each Pack Meal. Auterson said the Springfield Community Gardens test kitchen works with dietitian interns from Cox College to develop these.
In addition to helping feed the community, Pack Meals support local farmers and foragers. West imagines that most of the ingredients used in Pack Meals would be excess materials or even invasive plants, like garlic mustard or ground ivy, which may be destructive to a garden but can be harvested and used to add a new depth of flavor to a meal.
“It would be to find a solution for the invasive food and that extra, I don’t want to call it ugly produce, but when arugula gets all eaten up with bug holes, nobody wants to buy it to put on a pizza for a restaurant,” West said. “But if I dehydrated it for a backpacking meal, it’s just as nutrient dense and delicious.”
When it comes to selling Pack Meals, West said she would like to highlight the stories of Ozarks farmers, similar to how Askinosie Chocolate prints the stories of each farmer they work with on their chocolate bar packaging.
“Why not show this specific shiitake (mushroom) farmer for the shiitake potato chowder?” West asked hypothetically. “To have those farmers’ stories on soup bags to connect the dots of where (the ingredients) are being grown right here in the Ozarks, like an Ozarks roadmap. I think that’s the coolest part.”
Greta Cross is the trending topics reporter for the Springfield News-Leader. Follow her on X and Instagram @gretacrossphoto. Story idea? Email her at email@example.com.