Bringing meal kits to the table for rural Minnesotans

Through the development of a 14-day meal kit, University researchers aim to help rural Minnesota grocers and communities cope with food availability during the pandemic.

Volunteers pack color-coded meal kits at Bonnies Hometown Grocery store. 

Image by Courtesy of Kathy Draeger

Volunteers pack color-coded meal kits at Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery store. 

by Becca Most

The University of Minnesota Extension has designed a two-week meal kit to help rural Minnesotans have more reliable access to food and support rural grocery stores.

The meal kit includes non-perishables like canned fruits, soup and crackers, as well as goods like toilet paper, bar soap and sanitizer.

Abby Gold, a University Extension health and nutrition program leader, also developed a complimentary menu kit, which includes recipes that use some of the food items included in the meal kit.

“We’ve long seen these small town stores as really a front line for rural food access,” said Kathy Draeger, the director of UMN Extension’s Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships. “I would call them an oasis in a food desert.”

Although Draeger has been working in tandem with rural grocers for nearly 20 years, this project started in early March as a response to the COVID-19 outbreak. So far, stores in Clinton and Graceville, Minnesota have built kits, and Draeger said she has received calls from dozens of other cities, countries and religious groups as well.

Since the pandemic began, rural grocers have seen scarcities of certain items like yeast, toilet paper, canned goods and rice, she said. 

Smaller stores have also grappled with having fewer people on-staff and fewer trucks that bring in supplies every week.

The initiative is designed for shoppers to call or email their local grocer and place their orders. Workers then pack up the food into boxes and deliver them personally, or make them available for curbside pickup.

Each kit costs approximately $150 and is divided into three boxes, each about 20 pounds to make it easier to carry. Since it was published in March, the meal kit guide has been downloaded more than 4,200 times.

“The kit was really a way that the community could work with their rural grocer to make sure that we’re maintaining the supply of foods into these small town grocers,” Draeger said. 

The meal kit was also designed to build community networks and assist residents in small towns who may be sick, elderly or vulnerable to the disease and do not want to leave their homes.

“Talking about food security is important, especially now,” said Ren Olive, a University graduate student and University Extension associate who also worked on the project.

Some Minnesotans drive up to 50 miles to get to their nearest grocery store, they said. Having a system in place where people can rely on members of their community to shop for and deliver food makes all the difference, they added.

For Bonnie Carlson, the owner of Bonnie’s Hometown Grocery in Clinton, Minnesota, her grocery store is not only a food source for the town of about 400 people, but a community gathering spot, too. 

Although she has not had anyone call and order a meal kit yet, the local Trinity Lutheran Church bought five boxes last week to keep in stock in case community members need them.

“I don’t know how many [boxes] we’ll end up doing,” she said. “But it’s nice to know that there’s something available if they do.”