Just Food expands to downtown production facility as hunger hits a high

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When Chetan Michie joined Just Food as its first sourcing and production manager a few months ago, he didn’t expect to be thrown into one of the largest increases in community hunger the organization has ever seen. 

But as he pilots a program to create ready-to-eat meals for those in need, Michie has already delivered a huge success. And it’s in the form of the old Terrebonne location.

Just Food announced this week that it has leased the building at 805 Vermont St. for a new production facility. Formerly the home of Terrebonne Po’ Boys restaurant, which moved to 845 Massachusetts St. earlier this summer, the space will serve as a satellite kitchen where Michie will lead his program. 

Since March, Michie and his team of volunteers have recovered more than 5,000 pounds of food from restaurants and grocery stores and transformed them into nutritious, ready-to-eat meals.

This program is not only effective in reducing food waste, but also in removing barriers of access to healthy foods. Financially stressed residents may not have the time or know-how to prepare full meals. That’s why ready-to-eat meals are the most popular items in the Just Food pantry.

The new facility is much needed for Michie, who had already been leading the program with lean resources. The process of loading cooking supplies into a truck and driving to spaces like the Culinary Commons, a community kitchen at the Douglas County Fairgrounds, would take extra hours of work each day.

Michie is well known in the downtown Lawrence food scene. Now a co-owner of Latchkey Deli, he’s spent years working in the service industry and volunteering at special nonprofit events like Chef’s Table. But even with deep restaurant roots and his knack for forming community partnerships, Michie says it’s still been a whirlwind trying to meet such an astronomical need.

Meeting the community need

Across the country, 80% of food banks in the Feeding America network reported increased demand for food assistance over the past few months. Just Food is seeing the same pattern. Aundrea Walker, impact director at Just Food, says more than 1,500 new shoppers visited the food bank this summer, comprising nearly a quarter of its total visitors.

Just Food has been producing ready-to-eat meals for the community for more than three years. But their team’s investment this year — installing Michie to head the program and getting the new building — has empowered this program to become sustainable for years to come. It’s needed now more than ever, and it’s something their staff has talked about for years.

“When we did our first week of production three years ago, my coworkers and I termed it ‘The Sandwich Club.’ Like, wouldn’t it be amazing if we could just make soup, sandwiches and full-on meals that are incredible? It’s amazing that we’re here now, and it’s an immense win for us,” Walker says.

As Just Food opens the doors of its new space, it’s inviting people into new ways of thinking around supporting local food systems, reducing food waste and strengthening community partnerships. This kind of systemic change is happening at the state and federal levels, too.

Supporting local food while reducing waste

Just Food’s expansion comes on the heels of new government funding for local food systems in Kansas. 

Earlier this month, Gov. Laura Kelly visited Just Food to announce a new partnership that will purchase and distribute locally grown food to food-insecure Kansans through the state’s existing distribution network of food banks.

The $2.5 million cooperative agreement, coordinated by the U.S. and Kansas Departments of Agriculture, will provide economic opportunities for farmers and promote access to fresh foods in underserved communities — both urban and rural.

Gov. Laura Kelly, in bright blue, visited Just Food in Lawrence on Aug. 1, 2022 to announce a new program that will purchase and distribute locally grown, produced, and processed food to food-insecure Kansans. (Courtesy photo)

These kinds of initiatives can’t happen without community support. Michie says the Just Food staff, volunteers and the local service industry in general have been critical partners to making this production facility a reality. 

“It’s really a culmination of my 20-plus years in Lawrence,” he says.

Walker encourages the larger Lawrence community to make their own mark on the project, as the real work is just beginning.

“It’s super important for the community to rally around us, and get involved and stay involved,” Walker says. “There will be painting to help with, outside landscaping, and then of course helping with the meals. Volunteers helping us actually cook meals on a weekly basis will be super needed.”

The new production facility is expected to be operational by the end of August. To volunteer to help prepare the building for move-in and beyond, email impact@justfoodks.org to get involved, and visit justfoodks.org to learn more. Find out how you can get food at this link.

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Jordan Winter (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a 2019 KU grad with degrees in journalism and political science.

Check out her work at jrdnwntr.com. See more of her work for the Times here.

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