Good Meals on Tables
Maryland's greenest county addresses food equity and food security
By Amelia Blades Steward
Caroline County has long been known as “The Green Garden County” in Maryland because of the sheer number of farms growing large volumes of healthy produce. Despite the perceived availability of healthy fresh food, food equity and food security continue to be issues for parts of the county. How to make food more accessible to county residents has been a longtime concern of Beth Brewster, Supervisor of Food Services at Caroline County Public Schools.
Working through the nonprofit, Shore Gourmet, Inc., Brewster and her team are leading a proactive, three-prong approach at the grassroots level to make healthy food more accessible. This includes using a “living classroom” where students gain real-life experience in customer service and quick food production, as well as a public retail store that sells healthy items produced locally and through the culinary training program.
On the following pages, you will learn about the initiatives and impact this team’s efforts are having on the County and its most hungry.
Since 2014, Caroline County Technology Center (CCTC) Culinary Program has been operating in the renovated historic Caroline Schoolhouse (circa 1901) owned by the Town of Denton. Caroline County Public Schools leases the property for its culinary program which offers academics and practicums to 10th and 11th-grade students from North Caroline High School and Colonel Richardson High School. During their two semesters, students learn the basics of the culinary industry through catering and working in Shore Gourmet Market, preparing them for an entry-level position in the hospitality industry or higher education.
David Murray, the Operations Manager for Caroline Culinary Arts Center and Chef and Instructor for Chesapeake Culinary Center, stated, “It’s a safe training ground for the students and helps develop soft skills and how to deal with real-world situations while in a supportive environment.”
Larry Ogden, Chef Instructor at CCTC, said, “It all revolves around teaching students basic food preparation for all of the meals we prepare, as well as safety and sanitation procedures. They are also able to complete two food service certifications through the ProStart Program. Several of our students have gone on to culinary schools. The certificate, which includes 400 work hours, can help them with admission and financial aid at these higher education schools. Most of the students in the class have aspirations about working with food. They realize the origins of food, the nutritional aspects of food, and learn proper preparation.”
“I often see the light bulb go off as they are learning,” Ogden added. “They are expanding their eating habits and opening their minds to the different flavors of food. Sometimes they even take the recipes home for their families to try. They are amazed at what they can produce and how good it tastes.”
“Shore Gourmet is the face of healthier eating — providing fresher ingredients and whole foods, as well as healthier prepared foods to more people in our county,” stated Brewster.
“People enjoy our curbside pre-orders. On Wednesdays, we offer two options of sheet pan dinners for two or five people. The meals require only 25 to 45 minutes to reheat. There is normally a line down the street on Wednesday nights to pick up the meals. Our new economical Friday Family Kitchen Kits are popular with families looking for something fun to do together. The kits are for four people and cost $16.95 for the entire kit. They have included meals such as macaroni and cheese with toppings, tacos, quesadillas, and salads,” added Murray.
“But perhaps the most popular of the prepared meals are the frozen meals for one. We found that during the pandemic, adult children from states across the country order these meals online for their parents who live on the Shore. That way, they know their parents have healthy and nutritious meals to eat. We have 25 to 40 options. They can purchase five meals for $30. We even offer delivery.”
On average, Shore Gourmet Market sells 150 five-person meals and 50 two-person meals a week. Approximately 750 people weekly are enjoying a healthy, nutritious meal in place of unhealthy carryout food. The Market intends to keep the prices low while enabling and encouraging people to sit down at the dinner table as a family.
“It’s been fun working here. We have gotten more creative,” said Julie Thomas, who serves as Project Manager. “People are responding to it. We have a great team with the common interest in trying to get healthy food out to people in the area.”
“The silver lining to the pandemic has been that it has made us better and gotten us to think outside the box more. We have redesigned our offerings to be a community center people can rely upon to get a good meal,” concludes Brewster.
Because family farms are the foundation of the Eastern Shore’s culture and economy, Shore Gourmet also works with farmers to diversify their revenue with value-added products providing sustainability. The Shore Gourmet Project, a program with the Mid-Shore Regional Council, assists farmers in producing value-added products in addition to what they are growing.
The Caroline Schoolhouse also provides a community commercial kitchen that can be rented, helping new and growing food-based businesses reach a viable level of progress. Shore Gourmet staff helps business owners obtain health department approvals, packaging, labeling of their products, regulatory compliance, as well as provides consultation on various aspects of the production process.
The Market has supported the development of a wide range of products including baked goods, fruit wine, cider, caramel apples, jams and jellies, and medicinal herbs.
Between what Brewster is doing in the public schools and through Shore Gourmet Market, “People of all ages are seeing healthier food coming to their tables,” she concluded.
To improve health and ensure good nutrition in under-served areas identified as food deserts, Shore Gourmet is launching a new mobile initiative this spring. Its Curbside Market will provide fresh food year-round through a repurposed bus. The bus will deliver summer backpack meals to kids, individual meals to seniors and pantry items for families. Healthy options will include dairy products, eggs and homemade meals with locally sourced produce for purchase through the SNAP program. Seniors will be able to utilize their farmers’ market vouchers to purchase healthy food.
This project is being funded by a Share Our Strengths No Kid Hungry Campaign grant, the Mid-Shore Regional Council, the Rural Maryland Council, and the Maryland Department of Transportation. The Caroline Human Services Council provided both the equipment to keep food at the proper temperature and the generator for the bus.
“We are focusing on getting healthy, affordable and nutritious foods to people with the highest needs — specifically penetrating the poverty circles in the north and south ends of the county where our immigrant populations live,” Brewster said.
“This has been a two-year dream of mine to have a mobile market which can provide food equity and food security to residents of our county who have not had access to quality food,” Brewster concluded.
To donate or for further information:
Shore Gourmet Market
512 Franklin Street, Denton, Md.