Throughout the COVID pandemic lockdowns, The Family Dinner Project worked with our partners across the country to find new ways to engage families without face-to-face workshops and community dinners. One of the unique models we developed during that time was our Dinner in a Box program, which was so successful that it’s now a rapidly expanding project we’re growing in multiple communities with the support of fantastic local organizations. Wellspring Multi-Service Center, based in Hull, MA, is one of our closest partners in developing our Dinner in a Box model. Here’s how they’re using Dinner in a Box to enhance their clients’ experiences.
Wellspring Multi-Service Center provides wraparound support services to improve community wellbeing. Their work includes everything from nutrition assistance to job placement, training and education, crisis counseling, systems navigation help, and legal advocacy. Their Hull, MA location also provides a thrift store for clothing and household goods, and Aunt Dot’s Kitchen, a source of both fresh and perishable food that supplies over 120,000 meals per year.
Paul Williams, Director of Food Services for Wellspring, says, “The client base at Wellspring is varied and comes from all walks of life. With inflation, rising food costs, and general uncertainty, Wellspring has seen an increase in individuals accessing our food services.” While the organization serves many families, Paul notes that in recent years, they have seen a rise in the number of seniors seeking assistance. Families who took part in the Dinner in a Box project reflected a range of different household types, including multi-generational households, grandparents raising grandchildren, adult sibling households, single parent homes, and others. Few of the families reported having regular meals together at the start of the pilot.
Wellspring integrated The Family Dinner Project’s Dinner in a Box program into both its Aunt Dot’s Kitchen services, and its Mobile Kitchen, which provides food deliveries to clients who cannot receive in-person assistance at Wellspring. Our partnership began with a six-week pilot program. In the Aunt Dot’s Kitchen food pantry, Paul and his staff set up a small kiosk with take-home fun and conversation materials from The Family Dinner Project that could be chosen by individuals who came into the pantry to shop for food. Our goal was to help families who came to the pantry use the available ingredients efficiently, and to provide them with the fun and conversation ideas they could use to then make their meal enjoyable for everyone.
“We use food as an engagement tool,” Paul says. “Food gets families through the door and makes them more open to other services.” He adds, “We want families to have something to look forward to when they receive their food boxes. We think that TFDP resources will show that someone cares about how they are eating.”
To augment the kiosk, the Wellspring team also created family dinner folders containing games, recipes, conversation starters, and other helpful resources for their clients. When families came into Aunt Dot’s Kitchen, staff members talked to them about the program and helped point out different available ingredients that could be used to cook some of the recipes. Delivery clients also received folders through the Mobile Kitchen over the course of the six weeks.
The Takeaways and Next Steps
“People were much more receptive to the materials when there was an ‘ambassador’ explaining what the Family Dinner Project was and pointing out specific material such as games or recipes,” Paul shares. He noticed in the early days of the pilot program that just displaying the materials on a kiosk wasn’t enough to help families access the ideas; they were more hesitant and less likely to take the games and conversation starters without an explanation. Once staff members explained what the materials were for, and encouraged families to try some of the recipes and resources, Wellspring saw more enthusiasm among their clients and greater adoption of the Dinner in a Box idea.
“Families really enjoyed conversations about the (provided) recipes when we had fresh produce to connect it with,” Paul says. Throughout the partnership, The Family Dinner Project and Wellspring worked closely together to ensure that we could provide recipe ideas that were adaptable to the kinds of foods Aunt Dot’s Kitchen could offer week to week. Early data on the project shows that about two-thirds of Dinner in a Box participants at Wellspring reported spending more time together having shared meals, and these families are eager to continue using The Family Dinner Project’s materials to improve their mealtimes. Paul reflects that the pairing of ingredients and different resources for family mealtimes worked well. “The best part for me was just how bright and upbeat the messaging was,” he notes. “All of the materials, while containing important information, looked fun and uplifting. It was a great balance.”
In the future, as Wellspring continues to expand its offerings to include a prepared foods distribution and cooking demonstrations through a commissary at Aunt Dot’s Kitchen, we plan to grow our Dinner in a Box partnership. “The sky is the limit in terms of what we can do together and how we can serve more people,” Paul says. In addition to continuing to offer different Dinner in a Box experiences, both in person and via delivery, we hope to work together to provide community dinner-style experiences and jointly produced demonstrations onsite at Wellspring. We look forward to growing our partnership together.
Would you like to learn more about bringing The Family Dinner Project to your community? Contact us.