EVANSVILLE, Ind. — Lori Noble has always been conscious about the food she puts in her body. She gardens. She makes her own fresh juice. She seldom eats red meat and tries to avoid heavily processed food.
It’s a trait she inherited from her mother, who used to work in the dietary department at the old Welborn Clinic, and it’s one that Noble, Lincoln Elementary’s family and community outreach coordinator, has brought to her work running the school’s food pantry.
“I do not want any donations of Vienna sausage, Spam,” said Noble, who would never put those things on her own plate. “You can keep that. Or I can give it to my cat.”
After Noble spent several weeks this spring and summer preparing fresh meals with a local food justice organization, she had a new idea. Not only would her pantry distribute healthier food to those who need it but she would also prepare meal kits so families can cook fresh meals themselves, and so far, it’s worked out well, Noble said, as families have cooked everything from Hamburger Helper substitute to pizza together.
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‘On the same wavelength’
The food pantry has been around for four years, but this particular chapter started in March. Many students rely on their local school to provide them with breakfast and lunch, so when schools quickly shut down in the spring to help curb the spread of the new coronavirus, local organizations stepped in to ensure they were fed.
“We were looking at the relief efforts that were initiated, all of which were very important and very noble,” said Robin Mallery, director of Urban Seeds, a non-profit focused on nutrition access and education.
“However,” Mallery added, “those meals and those snack foods relied heavily on heavily processed and packaged foods — convenient, quick food that kids could just throw in the microwave or pop the top off of.”
There is a time and a place for those foods, said Mallery, who is also a nurse, but nutritious food is fundamental to a community’s wellbeing.
“It’s important to fill empty bellies, but we also have a moral obligation to look at the quality of the food we’re feeding our community, especially our precious children,” she said. “When kids are fed low-nutrient value food, they don’t learn as well.”
To that end, Urban Seeds cooked weekly made-from-scratch meals, almost 6,000 of them over 19 weeks from March to June. Noble was a volunteer.
“Big pots and big pans and big tubs,” she said. “All scratch. We had a lot of fun.”
Noble and Mallery knew each other since Urban Seeds is one of Lincoln’s community partners. Mallery didn’t have experience cooking huge batches of food, but Noble, who for years worked in catering, did.
“She was my right-hand person,” Mallery said. “She came up with recipes and helped me figure out volumes because we were making 350 meals at a shot…It’s really hard to figure out ingredients for 350 dinners in terms of how much you need.”
Noble said she and Mallery worked well together because they both share a passion for giving people good, fresh food.
“I enjoy giving people good food,” Noble said. “Meeting Robin, we just clicked because we are on the same wavelength.”
Back at the pantry
Noble, because of her interest in eating well, has always been careful about the foods her pantry hands out to families. She got it up and running as a passion project of the former principal, her past experience coming in handy once again.
Always looking for ways to improve nutrition, Noble was reflecting on her experience over the summer.
“I helped Robin with searching out recipes that were nutritious, that we could do in bulk,” she said. “I thought, ‘Well, I want to do the same thing with the food pantry.'”
It started with the Hamburger Helper, which she has since stopped carrying. In its place are the ingredients to make a similar dish from scratch, without all that comes with heavily processed foods. Then she moved on to ridding the shelves of Tuna Helper and Kraft macaroni and cheese.
Noble finds a recipe and compiles the ingredients, which often include spices and other things one may not usually consider a food pantry staple.
“It took a little convincing to let them let me spend money on garlic powder and onion powder,” Noble chuckled, explaining that higher-ups have to approve her purchases to ensure fiscal responsibility.
But once she lays out her goal, supervisors and donors alike are quick to support it.
Noble then puts the recipes to paper and, along with volunteer Vanessa Brown, bags the ingredients for the around 20 families helped each month to pick up, a number that has grown quite a bit since the start of the pandemic.
“Let’s say they’re doing Hamburger Helper,” Noble said. “We would have everything but the hamburger. We would have the noodles, the Worcestershire sauce, the cheese, the sour cream, the tomato sauce, the spices, the cream of celery soup, the cream of mushroom, whatever, all in that bag.”
Noble called the families after the first try to see how it turned out.
“They did make it,” she said. “They liked it. They said it came out good. It didn’t take a long time.”
And there’s an added benefit besides healthy eating.
“One of the encouraging things that we heard was that families are getting in the kitchen together to cook,” she said. “Being able to engage the whole family in something is also very, very valuable.”
Brown, the volunteer, said Noble’s work is especially important because it’s hard to find fresh food in the neighborhood around Lincoln.
She has cooked some of the recipes at home, including pizza, with her 8-year-old granddaughter.
“We cut up the veggies together,” she said. “I cut them up. She put them on…It is really a bonding experience.”
Fresh food and family time are, after all, what Noble was hoping for.
“I really love being able to enhance the dinnertime, family-time meal,” she said.