Friday, 17 February 2012

Meal Assembly

by Sadge, at Firesign Farm
Back in early January, a friend called with an invitation to a fun little "party." The set-up was kind of like Tupperware or Mary Kaye cosmetics - a girls get-together to learn about a product, no requirement to buy, some wine and snacks and socializing - the women readers here know what I'm talking about. This "party' was an intro session at a local dinner meals assembly place. We'd have the place to ourselves for that evening, she was bringing a couple bottles of wine, she'd get to prepare a free meal as hostess, we could make ourselves one meal at the "party" price, with the option to prepare additional meals from a reduced menu at regular price.

Even though the place is only two blocks from my home, I'd never been inside. There are about 16 dinner-meal menu items, different each month. A customer schedules an hour-long session once a month, pre-ordering a minimum of 12 meals (in the 3 or 6 serving size) she wants to prepare during that time. Moving from station to station, where everything is set-up for that particular meal, she follows the prep recipe - measuring the ingredients for the sauce into one freezer baggie, putting together the side dish items in another baggie, packaging the meat portion, various baggies, and the cooking instructions all together in a gallon bag, puts that in her section of the guest refrigerator, and on to the next station. When finished, she places her order for next month, and has a least 12 "meals-in-a-bag" to take home and put in her freezer - to thaw and cook as needed.

It made for a fun evening, but the concept wasn't really something compatible with my lifestyle (nor that of most of the readers here, I'd guess. But bear with me, I do have a point to make here eventually). I only have the freezer compartment of my refrigerator, and it's pretty-much full - half with bags of fruits and veggies from my garden and orchard, the other half with white freezer-paper packages of meat I buy in the cost-saving club packs and re-package at home into meal-size servings for the two of us. Our chickens provide our eggs. I grow and dry many of my herbs. I patronize a grocery store that has bulk bins for grains and legumes, and there's another one a block from my home I can walk to when I'm out of milk. I already know how to cook, and usually without a recipe.

So I made my $5 3-serving meal, and bought a couple more pre-made ones from the freezer with my half-off party coupon. One of the employees working that evening was an old acquaintance I hadn't seen in years. So as we were playing catch-up, she told me she'd just gotten a full-time job offer, had given her notice, and that they needed someone to fill her part-time on-call position. I ended up with the job, working a couple of sessions a week - set-up before, clean-up after, cleaning and refilling stations between customers, and just general friendly customer service stuff. It's pleasant enough work, short and flexible hours, and nice to earn a bit of extra spending money.

Now this isn't an advertisement. I purposely am not using the name of the franchise. And even though I now could buy meals with an employee discount, I haven't done so (really - no room in the freezer). The cost of the meals is reasonable - a bit more than my usual home-cooking from scratch, less than a comparable meal in a restaurant. But I find the concept interesting, and I've been talking with the customers quite a bit - asking how long they've been coming there, what they like about it, why they keep coming back. I've been thinking about what they've said, thinking a bit more about the concept in general, and am feeling a bit of a paradigm shift beginning.

Allow me to digress just a bit now: thirty-some years ago, I was living in a rather remote mountain town. The only food store was a big chain franchise, with the standard pre-packaged and over-processed stuff, ingredient lists I couldn't even pronounce. A bunch of us locals got together and started a bulk food-buying co-operative. At first, it was just pitching in for a monthly buying trip to an alternative foods warehouse supplier, splitting up the order in someone's home. We outgrew that and found a small storefront to rent, with members volunteering time in the "store." We outgrew that, ending up with a real store with somewhat regular hours, a small paid staff, tiers of membership options, and a surcharge for use by the general public. Everything was still pretty much bought in bulk, and everyone knew to bring their own bags, jars, and bottles to reuse when shopping. It really was a rather "green sustainable-living" set-up, and gave the whole town access to minimally-processed, pesticide-free food options, whole grains, vegetarian, and alternative food-stuffs not easily obtained back then.

And now, back to the present, where alternatives now abound - Farmers Markets, Whole Foods, Wild Oats, health food stores, internet shopping, etc. And when, as an article written in 2008 (here) says, more than a quarter of food available for consumption ends up being thrown out - spoilage, expiration dates, too much prepared, inadequate storage, and on and on. And I'm  starting to look at this meal-assembly process in a new light.

Maybe it's the food co-op for a new generation. Menu items are bought in bulk, so less individual packaging (although lots of plastic freezer bags - wonder what they'd say if someone wanted to bring in their own reusable freezer containers each month?). Timely use of ingredients - who out there has partially-used spice containers more than a year old? ten years old? Saves money, packaging, food waste - say you only need a teaspoon of turmeric, or a quarter-cup of coconut milk. Saves time too - all the chopping, slicing, and dicing is already done.

It is home-cooking. It is real food. Customers can tweak the ingredients when they're putting each meal together, according to their own family's preferences (say, if you want to leave out the bell peppers or garlic). Healthier alternatives, such as whole-grain pastas, are available to try, without committing to whole bags of something your family won't eat. Some working mothers like that it's all in one bag, with instructions easy enough for dad or the kids to cook. Some empty-nesters have told me that between these meals and a monthly trip to a big warehouse store, they haven't shopped at a supermarket in years - and their food bills are lower.

So it's an interesting experience, and has given me some new concepts to ponder. Besides, I'd say anything that gets families to sit down to dinner together has got to be a good thing.