The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Bel Air-based Anna’s House to make significant changes to how its support programs operate, but the organization still has been able to help families in need, including by bringing parents and children together through cooking meals.
Community groups have stepped up in recent weeks to assemble and donate meal kits, which include recipes and fresh ingredients, so families can learn to prepare meals — one of the many life skills families learn through Anna’s House.
Anna’s House, which is among more than 80 Catholic Charities programs in the Baltimore region, assists families that are experiencing homelessness, seeking shelter from domestic violence or are in need of transitional housing.
Eight families currently have housing through Anna’s House’s facilities in Bel Air, and 25 to 30 more families and individuals throughout Harford County receive support services from the organization, according to Jennifer Crosson, resources development manager.
Support services — provided by staff and volunteers — include career training, life skills classes, counseling, assistance with finding a job, case management and referrals to other community organizations in Harford County, according to the Anna’s House website.
With the onset of the pandemic and the need to close down volunteering for some time, “we really had to come up with some COVID-safe ideas” for supporting families, Crosson said.
Crosson said she has been throwing out multiple ideas in an effort to “see what sticks.” One idea involved creating kits similar to those offered by HelloFresh, which delivers boxes to make meals that include ingredients, nutrition information and recipes.
Anna’s House reached out to the community through its Facebook page in October, asking local groups to put together meal kits for clients. They were to be designed with a “family-friendly recipe” and ingredients to make a meal that serves a four-person family.
“This is a fun way to introduce an very important life skill while maintaining the social distance guidelines,” according to the post.
Community groups step up
Two groups, Girl Scout Troop 1118 of Bel Air and The We Cancerve Movement Inc., responded to the call. The first collection of meal kits, created by the youth members of We Cancerve, arrived shortly before Thanksgiving. Photos of a chicken-and-vegetable meal fixed by a mother and her daughter were posted on the Anna’s House Facebook page Dec. 3.
“We asked for basic recipes that are family friendly, stuff that kids and adults would like,” Crosson said, noting that beginner cooks should be able to successfully prepare a meal with the submitted recipes.
We Cancerve provided eight kits with breakfast, lunch and dinner options. The members of Troop 1118 are researching recipes, which they will test out by preparing the meals before assembling the kits in the coming weeks, according to Crosson.
“Our clients really really loved having them,” Crosson said of the meal kits, noting that families at Anna’s House had in the past relied on prepared meals such as those that can be heated up in a microwave.
“Being able to create something on their own was a huge deal for our families,” she added.
Crosson said parents and children have been working together in the kitchen. Preparing meals together not only helps forge family bonds but teaches younger generations life skills.
“This one actually seems to have taken off way more than I anticipated,” she said of her ideas for COVID-safe activities.
Crosson praised We Cancerve members for their response, noting they “jumped right on” the request for volunteers and that “they did a fabulous job with the kits that they brought.”
The recipes in the We Cancerve meal kits were developed by the young members, based on their favorite family meals.
“We had the board members choose their favorite meals, so we can share a part of ourselves with families in need,” said Grace Callwood, founder and chair of We Cancerve’s youth Board of Advisors.
The organization, which also has an adult Board of Directors, serves children who are experiencing homelessness, serious illnesses or are in foster care. We Cancerve operates a number of programs for children, including virtual versions of those programs during the pandemic, and partnered with local schools and community organizations to provide meals to families in need.
Callwood, 16, is a resident of Abingdon and is a sophomore in the International Baccalaureate magnet program at Edgewood High School. She and other We Cancerve members shopped for the ingredients, assembled the kits and delivered them to Anna’s House in the same day.
The kits, which are in boxes small enough to fit inside a refrigerator, include fresh meat and produce, seasonings like salt and pepper, even aluminum foil pans, “everything they would need to prepare the meal,” Callwood said.
Sami Bowling, a member of the board of advisors, provided the chicken-and-vegetables recipe, based on a casserole her family makes on a regular basis.
“It’s a fairly simple dish, so I thought it would be good because it’s pretty quick to make,” said Bowling, 14, an eighth-grader at Patterson Mill Middle School.
The Abingdon resident attended William S. James Elementary School with Callwood and applied for the WeCancerve board at the suggestion of her fifth-grade teacher. She described the meal kits as “a really good project for us to do,” citing “every person that we can reach and can help.”
Bowling stressed that food is “something that people need to survive,” but many people do not have access to it. She noted that, “especially with the pandemic, it’s hard for a lot of people to get access to food right now.”
“I think it’s a super-cool thing, to know that something that was just in my family was able to help others,” she said of her recipe.
Spork’d: Meal kits expanded
We Cancerve has taken the Anna’s House meal kit project and expanded upon it with Spork’d, an initiative to deliver the same type of meal kits to other organizations that work with families and youths in need.
The name “Spork’d” comes from how the kits are based on meals “families could have using a spoon and a fork, rather than going to fast-food items that are unhealthy,” Callwood said.
“This project is COVID safe,” she said. “It allows us to make an easy drop off, and it’s a quick and efficient project.”
Her organization is preparing to reach out to community groups in the Baltimore region with which We Cancerve has relationships. Callwood plans to distribute the kits to area shelters and other organizations on a quarterly basis, according to T’Jae Ellis, Callwood’s mother, business manager and member of the We Cancerve board of directors.
During the pandemic, many people in Maryland face the challenge of not having enough food at home, or if they do have the ability to purchase food, they do not have access to food sources, such as a lack of transportation to get to the grocery store.
Another challenge facing families is that not all who are in need qualify for state financial assistance, such as those who have lost their jobs and had to leave their homes but are not classified as homeless since they are in temporary shelter with friends or family, Callwood noted.
“We’re just adding in support, plugging in where we can,” she said.
WeCancerve is using $4,000 in grant funding from Hormel Foods to support the Spork’d project. Callwood received a $1,500 donation from Hormel during the summer to help support WeCancerve’s Brunch Box program, a partnership with Halls Cross Roads Elementary School in Aberdeen and Magnolia Elementary in Joppa to provide boxes of nonperishable food and fresh produce to families in need who are affiliated with those schools.
Hormel honored Callwood in September as one of its “10 Under 20 Food Heroes.” She received a $2,000 prize from the company, which was followed by another $2,000 payment.
Members of the community can support We Cancerve’s initiatives. Visit the organization’s website or social media pages on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, or send an email to email@example.com for more information.
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“It allows families to cook with each other, as well as learn life skills on how to prepare meals,” Callwood said of the meal kit project.