AUBURN — For a graduate school project, Karen Bolduc subscribed to 14 national and international fresh-meals-in-a-box delivery programs — think Blue Apron, HelloFresh, Terra’s Kitchen.
She cooked. She ate. She tossed a slew of cardboard and plastic.
She thought she could do better.
The Auburn organic farmer is rolling out a pilot project for what she calls Maine’s first “CSA/Meal Kit Hybrid” — part community-supported agriculture, part recipe plan and ingredients for two meals for two people a week, for 18 weeks.
The produce comes from her farm, the meat from Farmers’ Gate Market in Wales and the recipes from her kitchen, born from a massive flow chart of what comes into season when.
“(The national services have) the seed of a good idea: ‘Give you everything you need — you just cook it,'” said Bolduc, 36. “But there’s massive sustainability problems. You get a cardboard box with all these layers of insulation, three ice packs, cardboard between the protein and the produce, every piece of produce is individually wrapped — it’s a massive amount of trash. And then on top of that, you talk about food miles, everything’s coming from California. ‘We work with local farmers — by local, they mean United States.”
With her hybrid pilot project, Bolduc will make deliveries around Lewiston-Auburn every week, leaving a 16-quart kit and an ice pack in a cooler at each participant’s house. (The cooler stays there all season, and people outside L-A can pick up at her South Auburn Organic Farm.)
“An example might (include) a big head of kale, two apples, a few onions, a head of garlic, some fresh thyme, two chicken thighs shrink-wrapped, some fresh greens,” she said, along with two five- to six-step recipe cards.
Recipes will be easy to follow and new each week, but won’t, she joked, have the step-by-step picture instructions of some national meal box services.
“It took us 2.5 hours to do a photo shoot for one meal kit,” Bolduc said. “I don’t have that kind of time — I’ve got to be out there growing peas.”
Participants will get a list of things to keep in their pantry throughout the program, like spices and grains, and, also unlike the national services, they’ll have to chop up ingredients.
There’s a fine line, Bolduc said, between making cooking easy and making it so easy that you don’t feel ownership.
“There’s something empowering about learning how to cook and actually doing it yourself and the feeling of accomplishment and self-esteem,” she said.
Bolduc thinks, too, a lot about what happens once dinner is served.
“So much good stuff happens at the dinner table,” she said. “Communication skills, you’re learning trust, you’re learning civility, you’re learning vocabulary, you’re learning how to look somebody in the eye and share a story. That’s a really valuable thing we want to try to promote, and it’s missing.”
She started selling shares for the pilot on May 1. One share costs $35 a week. Sign-up closes May 15 and meals start June 1. Bolduc has capped the first year at 30 participants, with two of those discounted for low-income families.
She’s applied for a $130,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant that would allow her to expand the program to 100 shares next year and pull in fruits and vegetables from half a dozen local farms.
Bolduc and her husband, John, bought their 10 acres on Sopers Mill Road to start the South Auburn Organic Farm in 2009. After delivering to Portland restaurants for three years, she changed the farm to a nonprofit called Food Joy with a mission of teaching people how to cook. The new hybrid falls exactly in line with that.
It’s also influencing what she plants amongst her 100-plus crops. She’s added baby watermelons and cabbages, early-ripening tomatoes and short-season green peppers for more recipe versatility.
“It takes mind space to think about, ‘What am I going to cook?'” Bolduc said. “I’ve had a crash course in mind space here (by having) two babies in the past two years. I don’t have time to play Iron Chef right now and think about what do I have in here, what am I going to make, then dinner is a three-hour thing, everyone’s starving. I’m hopeful this helps get people there.”
Karen Bolduc and her daughter, Elovie, share a moment in amongst the strawberry plants on South Auburn Organic Farm, where Bolduc is creating Maine’s first CSA/Meal Kit Hybrid through her nonprofit, Food Joy. In the doorway is Joyce Michaud.
Elovie Bolduc pets one of the chicks at South Auburn Organic Farm in Auburn.
Karen Bolduc and her daughter, Elovie, handle one of the new chicks on South Auburn Organic Farm in Auburn.
Karen Bolduc collects eggs from several of her flock of 80 chickens on her South Auburn Organic Farm.
Karen Bolduc from South Auburn Organic Farm explains the production chart she created to track when the various crops were ready to harvest. She works on harvesting earlier by choosing crops that develop quickly and starting some crops indoors in pots.
Karen Bolduc checks one of the low tunnels that contain lettuce to see how the crops are doing at her organic farm in Auburn.