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Family Meals

Repackage frozen surplus prepared food into individual meals to serve those who face barriers to cooking for themselves.

Photo of Fiona

Written by

Since 1981 Food For Free has been a pioneer in the field of food rescue. Food For Free rescues fresh food—food that might otherwise go to waste—and distributes it within the local emergency food system where it can reach those in need.

Launched in the spring of 2016, the Family Meals program re-purposes prepared foods into single-serving meals for people with limited access to kitchens.

Family Meals uses frozen surplus foods donated from local university dining halls and other sources, rescued via our Prepared Foods Rescue program. With the work of staff and volunteers, Family Meals takes this food and repackages it into individual heat-and-eat frozen meals for:

  • Families sheltered in hotels, without access to kitchens
  • Families with young children who are struggling to put dinner on the table
  • Other populations that face barriers to cooking for themselves

What early, lightweight experiment might you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

Work with local universities and other institutions to identify sources willing to donate surplus food. Secure kitchen space in a local church or community center. Collaborate with donors on methods to safely collect, freeze, and transport the donated food to a kitchen where the meals may be processed. Package the rescued food into single-serving containers and then freeze the meals to ensure food safety. Work with local agencies to identify populations who will benefit from the donated meals.

What skills, input or guidance from the OpenIDEO community would be most helpful in building out or refining your idea?

While our Family Meals program is up and running, it's still in its infancy. We welcome any and all ideas about refining and improving our process in order to help feel additional people.

Tell us about your work experience:

Food For Free has been rescuing fresh food since 1981.

This idea emerged from

  • A group brainstorm

How far along is your idea?

  • It was in the works before this challenge – it’s existed for 2-6 months

How would you describe this idea to your grandmother?

The Family Meals program re-purposes excess prepared foods donated from local university dining halls into single-serving meals for people with limited access to kitchens who are facing food insecurity.

[Only for launched ideas] How does your idea differ from what you're already doing?

The Family Meals program is still in its infancy. We're still looking to refine and improve all our processes: from rescuing more prepared food, to how we make the meals, and finally to whom we distribute the finished meals.

How is your idea unique to the space?

As far as we have been able to tell, the Family Meals program is unique. We believe we are the only organization taking frozen, excess food and turning it into healthy, frozen heat-and-eat meals intended for individuals and families who face barriers to cooking.

Who needs to play a role in your idea in order to make it successful?

We need strong relationships with our food donors, our kitchen space donors, our volunteer workers, and our meal recipients to make this entire program successful.

How do you plan to measure the impact of your idea?

Along with our partner agencies, we're tracking the amount of food we re-purpose, the number of meals we make and deliver, and the number of individuals who receive our meals. We're also interested in potentially tracking health outcomes of the individuals who receive the meals.

What are your immediate next steps after the challenge?

Continue to refine all our processes. Family Meals is still a work in progress and we're constantly reevaluating everything we do. In particular, we are currently brainstorming how to make our kitchen work space more conducive to our particular needs and limitations.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Ben Applebaum

As already stated: great idea. 
I was curious if there was any communication to the diners/customers that their institution was participating in this. In addition to broadening awareness of the program and possibly increasing traffic to the dining facility, might this be a way to solicit contributions or participation from more more people. For example, diners could "pay it forward" and add a donation to their bill at check out that would help fund the process.

Photo of Fiona

Hi Ben. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I love this idea, but unfortunately most of our donors are university dining halls, where students don't usually pay out of pocket, or even get a bill, so no funds actually change hands at the point of "purchase." But I take your point to heart and I'll brainstorm other ways to potentially engage the diners in a way that leads to more visibility for our program. 

Photo of Brian Tang

Great idea Fiona!  I noticed that fruit was not included in your photos, so would love to find ways to collaborate to ensure the food insecure also get access to healthy natural fruit via our initiative Be an Urban Food Rescuer... Pokemon Go style! [UPDATE 6/10: Walk21HK CityTech Award Winner!]  

Photo of Fiona

Hi Brian. Your fruit rescue idea is so cool! You're right, our meals don't include fruit. Our meals use exclusively prepared, frozen foods, not fresh foods, so I don't believe fruit fits in with our current model.

Photo of Dimitri

Hi Fiona, that's a very good idea.

Im just wondering are you only relying from surplus foods that are donated to you? And how do you assure these donators? Because I'm pretty sure they get a lot of similar requests, and unless they have a reason to particularly like you, they will most probably just ignore you. Lastly, in some countries there are legislative barriers and policies such as in Norway where supermarkets still have the full responsibility for food safety until the food is received by the end-users, no matter how the food is distributed (Hanssen et al., 2015). This is especially problematic, since most of the times they are unable to control for food safety after the donation has taken place. How do you encourage organisations to donate, as the existence of both barriers and policies may ultimately contribute to the lack of food donation to a certain extent.

Photo of Felicia

Hi there,

Overall I think this a great idea and it is really great that this is helping feed the hungry. I definitely think getting feedback from people who receive the meals would be good idea. Like you have probably seen, biodegradables would help conserve resources and overall reduce waste, which is part of this challenge. I love that you are saving food from being wasted, but how do you know the food safe to eat? And do you know the exact process the food goes through before you receive? How do you distribute the food? I think this could be beneficial to many people, you may be able to gain a bit a profit if you try to sell this to the public. This is only an idea. Great idea, good work!

Photo of Fiona

Hi Felicia. Ensuring the safety of the food donations we receive is a high priority for us at Food For Free. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, Public Law 104-210 was
signed in 1996. This law protects companies and organizations from civil and
criminal liability in the situation of food donations. It also acts to encourage food
and grocery donations to non-profit organizations for distribution to needy
individuals and charitable causes through tax breaks.

In order to comply with the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act and to safeguard
against gross negligence or intentional misconduct in the prepared food donation
process, prepared food donations must adhere to the specific criteria. We only accept food from vetted, professional, ServSafe certified sources. By working  closely with our food donors we have developed processes to ensure that all the food is prepared for donation safely. 

Photo of OpenIDEO

Welcome to the Refinement phase Fiona! We've added new Refinement questions to your original submission that we'd love for you to answer. Please check out the Refinement Phase Toolkit for instructions on how to answer the new questions and other recommendations we encourage all idea teams to consider in the upcoming weeks.

Refinement Phase Toolkit:

Lastly, here's a useful tip: When you update the content of your post, it'd be helpful to indicate this in your idea title by adding an extension. For example, you can add the extension " - Update: Experience Maps 09/28" to you idea title. This will be a good way to keep people informed about how your idea is progressing!

Photo of OpenIDEO

Hi Fiona, we updated the link to the Refinement Toolkit. Please use this new link instead:

Photo of Emily Gaddis

Hi Fiona, 

Just wondering what you think about edible food packaging or compostable/biodegradables. Musica di carta is an interesting historical bread plate from Italy you might check out. Have you heard of Nature Flex? I use that line by Innovia Films and really like it. 

Photo of Fiona

Hi Emily. We haven't looked into edible packaging as I'm not sure it would be suitable to our process and our final product. We're always keeping out eyes open for better materials, however, so thanks for the Nature Flex tip!

Photo of Emily Gaddis


If your team is interested in a 100% compostable/biodegradable packaging option, I can provide information on the packaging materials.  Does Food for Free operate exclusively in Boston? If so, there are composting resources.

Photo of Evelyn Ihrke


Your website is extensive- lots of people make light work!

Wondering about growing this idea , and possibly making it a job training and skills opportunity for people who need to work.
Is Food For Free replicable in cities other than Boston?
Are there work opportunities for the Mom’s and Dad’s in the shelters?

Photo of Fiona

Hi Evelyn. There are many cities in the country that are home to other food rescue operations, so I'd say that yes, Food For Free is a replicable model outside of Boston. The Family Meals program would also be replicable. There's excess food everywhere and rescuing it is possible! 

Photo of Kate Rushton

Congratulations on being one of the forty ideas in the refinement phase. 

What is the next step for Family Meals? What is the biggest hurdle you need to overcome?

Photo of Fiona

Hi, Kate. Thank you! Our next step is working on refining our processes. We want to get several additional food donors on board, and we also want to find more groups to partner with and distribute meals to. I'd say our biggest hurdle at the moment is finding a kitchen work space that's better suited to our needs. 

Photo of Amber Matthews

You should talk to bakeries, they throw out bread everyday!

Photo of Fiona

Hi Amber, thanks for your comment! Our organization, Food For Free, rescues a large amount of bread every day and donates it to local organizations that distribute it to folks who need it. That bread isn't a good match for these Family Meals, however. 

Photo of An Old Friend

Hi I like your idea. Will this be pre-cooked or raw food, or both?

Photo of Fiona

The food is all pre-cooked. The food is left over from meal services at local university dining halls. It's high-quality food that we're saving and redistributing to folks in need. 

Photo of OpenIDEO

Congrats on this being today's Featured Contribution!

Photo of Ahmed

Nice idea!I like the altruistic approach of the idea!