'Our business is to supply affordable food, and that's what we hope to accomplish'

[caption id="attachment_23476" align="alignright" width="288" caption="The Redwood Empire Food Bank will begin production of its first three Simply Supper packages in mid-August."][/caption]

SANTA ROSA – The Redwood Empire Food Bank is breaking new ground by launching its own line of affordable meals-in-a-box.

The first three "Simply Supper" meals will go into production in mid-August, according to David Goodman, REFB executive director.

"Historically, food banks distribute donated food. Donations are critical and they're efficient, and there is plenty of surplus food available. But rather than relying on what good fortune will bring us we wanted to take control of our inventory," he said.

With the idea of bringing families together and promoting nutritious, tasty, home-cooked meals as an alternative to cheap fast food, REFB put together a team to develop and brand three pilot meals: Black Bean Chili, Curried Lentil and Rice Stew and Baked Ziti.

Simply Suppers aim to both please clients who expect certain flavors and widen their palates by introducing new ones.

The team, which includes Mr. Goodman, Rick Goldberg as food developer, Mark Martindill of FDP in Santa Rosa as procurer and David Bacigalupi of Armstrong Associates for brand and package design, hopes to create four new flavor profiles a year for the next four years.

The meals -- each feeding four to five people -- will be available at REFB's Women, Infants and Children program stores at cost, or about $2.50. They'll also be available to all of the food distribution programs supplied by REFB and to other food banks across the nation.

"There are 200 food banks nationwide, but none of them has developed anything similar," said Mr. Goodman. "This is a truly innovative way to give people an affordable choice."

REFB's clients, he believes, rely heavily on fast food because it's cheap and filling.

"But it's not good for them, and grabbing it on the run doesn't promote family strength," he said.

According to Mr. Armstrong, who has donated his time to help brand the new products, the project took about nine months to complete. He came up with the name, and Kelly McManus of Santa Rosa took the engaging photographs that appear on the boxes.

"The meals cost about a quarter or a third of similar products in grocery stores," he said, "and they taste better."

The whole aim of the project was to keep the end cost down. Even if Simply Suppers become a staple of food banks across the country, REFB isn't counting on a new revenue stream, said Mr. Goodman.

"I don't believe there should be a profit involved in giving needy people nutritious food. We don't have to answer to stockholders. Our business is to supply affordable food, and that's what we hope to accomplish with Simply Suppers," he said.