In early June, the community grocer Daily Table embarked on a summer partnership with the Shah Family Foundation to bring free, pre-packaged breakfast and lunch to children across Dorchester, Roxbury, and Cambridge.
The program, piloted in Chelsea with help from Stockpot Malden and the Farm Girl food truck, is designed to thread seamlessly through established food retail models to alleviate hunger and revitalize businesses in communities where food insecurity and the economic downturn of the pandemic are particular pain-points.
“We asked ourselves: ‘What would it take to offer free meals to every kid who might go hungry this summer? What would it take to offer beautiful food, healthy food to every kid? And we came up with Local Lunchbox,” said Ross Wilson, executive director of the Shah Foundation.
“The concept is simple to implement and it’s no questions asked: Any child who needs a meal gets one,” he said.
The program was launched on July 12 and will run through mid-September. Parents and children 18 or younger making their way through the refrigerated aisles of any of the three Daily Table stores – Codman Square, Dorchester, Lower Roxbury, and Central Square in Cambridge – are guaranteed to find colorful signage pacing shoppers, soft 90’s R&B drifting from the ceiling PA system, and, of course, a free meal.
The non-profit cultivates partnerships with growers and handlers along the supply chain to trim back its own expenses, and its stores carry discounted, donated, or “rescued” produce that might otherwise be relegated to a compost bin, dumpster – or worse, a landfill.
So-called “salvage stores” are not entirely new, but with the emergence of home-delivery subscriptions like Misfits Market and Imperfect Foods, the nutritional value of the earth’s ugly ducklings and their utility in curbing food insecurity and food waste is finally entering the mainstream.
“We could charge more, but instead we pay for lights, we pay the employees, and we chase down ways to make healthier options more affordable,” said Phillip Hunt, store manager at Daily Table’s Dorchester location. “We don’t want to browbeat you into eating a certain way, but we try to nudge customers toward better choices.
He added: “I grew up on Norfolk [Street]; it’s a very diverse area – my Thanksgiving turkey wouldn’t look like your Thanksgiving turkey. You generally don’t get to be an island around here, and, so, the culture of the community, where you’re always brushing elbows with people who are different from you, seeps into the business,” said Hunt, noting, “We’re here to offer healthy, nutritious, good food for everyone,” a mission statement that aligns with that of the Shah Foundation.
Funds and nutritional parameters provided by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) enable the foundation to plant Local Lunchbox programs at retail locations in the greater Boston metro area, but the heavy lifting happens at the ground level.
The program has already been implemented at Spinelli’s in East Boston, as well as several Boloco locations across the city, where meals are lifted directly from the restaurant’s menu and offered at no cost to kids and parents who, at the counter, ask for the “‘Local Lunchbox special.”
Said the Shah Foundation’s Wilson, who brought the proposal for a Local Lunchbox program to Daily Table in its early stages:
“We love the simplicity of this program, and we’re proud to bring this to the community. We work with every restaurant to meet highly nutritional standards, to publish menus and market the program through restaurants. It ends up being beneficial for businesses and for the local community.”
Through its three stores, Daily Table employs 40 people, the majority hired from surrounding communities, and all paid a $15 minimum wage, a situation that melded well with Wilson’s intent to supply meals for children on summer vacation.
“This is about treating people with great dignity, no matter the age,” he said, accenting Daily Table’s mission.
Shoppers tramping through aisles or perusing the newly installed pantry shelving in Codman Square might recognize cult favorites like Annie’s Macaroni & Cheese, or even snag a bundle of misted greens from Copley’s Boston Open Market at their secondary location – surplus, but still farm fresh.
Produce that isn’t locally sourced is locally supplied through Massachusetts-based shipping companies. Latin American staples – like chayote, a tropical squash, or malanga and yuca, popular root vegetables – that normally can only be found by scrounging in frozen food aisles feature prominently in the store’s circular produce flow.
“When I think of what I ate growing up, there was not a wealth of variety. There was no romaine lettuce; the most we had was iceberg. There was no arugula, or field greens, or escarole,” said Celia Grant, the director of Community Engagement and Programs for all the Daily Table stores.
“There’s no use in asking customers to overhaul their diets; there’s value and memories and love in eating what you like. But maybe, if you’ve never tried the greens, maybe you’ll like those, too.”
When it came to integrating Daily Table’s pre-existing model with Local Lunchbox’s nutritional requirements – standards established by the USDA – it was “all-hands-on-deck,” said Grant.
Now in its sixth year, the Codman Square store already tailors much of its inventory to the surrounding community’s cultural and economic profile. By the time representatives from the Shah Foundation approached Daily Table with their pitch, pre-preparing meals was already a matter of routine for the grocer’s kitchen staff, who churn out hundreds of SNAP/EBT eligible grab-n-go meals each week.
Highly sought-after pre-packaged lunches, like founder Doug Rauch’s own roasted chicken, vegetables, and brown rice, were exchanged for more “kid-friendly” alternatives, like pulled pork and coleslaw, cheesy flatbread, and pasta and meatballs.
“Not all of our meals appeal to the palate of an 18-year-old or younger, and so we made necessary adjustments. The point is to make nutrition accessible and appealing,” Grant said.
“Initially, it was a challenge for our procurement team. It may seem like a little thing, but we had never sold boxed milk, and suddenly we needed a lot of milk boxes and we needed them quickly,” she said. “We used some things from our regular repertoire and, ultimately, we weren’t reinventing the wheel. This wasn’t outside of the realm of our regular production schedule, so it felt like, you know, ‘we can do this’.”
A history of collaboration between Daily Table and food access organizations like the Neighborhood Food Access Collaborative, Black Ministerial Alliance, and Cambridge Health Alliance facilitated the outreach and community awareness that would guarantee foot traffic for the program.
After only three days, store chef Jason Carpenter saw Local Lunchbox requests quadruple from 26 meals distributed across all three stores on launch day to at least 100 meals a day.
And the program continues to grow.
Tentatively, the deadline to end Local Lunchbox is mid-September, but Wilson said there’s room to reassess. “It all depends on the community’s needs at that stage. Kids return to school in September, and they’ll have access to breakfast and lunch there, but, depending on the community’s needs, we will reassess,” he said.
In the meantime, kids 18 years and younger and their parents can find Local Lunchbox meals at all three Daily Table locations, free of charge, no questions asked.
Menus and further information can be found at locallunchbox.org.