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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Bellingham chef delivers meals to the vulnerable during COVID-19

Fresh and healthy food made available to low-income and at-risk individuals

Illustration of Ona Lee, chef and founder of Clara’s Canning Co., with food, trees and flowers. // Illustration by Katya McMullen

By Katya McMullen

Ona Lee, chef and founder of Clara’s Canning Co., is cooking and delivering meals with her Meals to the Vulnerable program to at-risk people in Bellingham during COVID-19. 

Lee uses strict safety protocols to ensure her food is safe for individuals such as pre and postpartum mothers, the elderly and people who are immunocompromised, according to the Clara’s Canning Co. website. Anyone can purchase a meal, but the program aims at helping low-income and at-risk individuals.

“The last thing I wanted was anyone thinking they were alone,” Lee said. 

Lee, who grew up on food assistance, said she relates to the challenges of accessing healthy food and doesn’t believe anyone should be less deserving of a quality meal. Meals are $15 and typically include a main dish, side dish and dessert. For residents who are low or no income, donations are accepted as a pay-what-you-can rate. 

“It helps if people order like we’re a restaurant,” said Ashley Duffus, who handles orders and deliveries for Meals to the Vulnerable. A portion of regular sales is used to subsidize the cost of meals going to low-income residents, along with donations.

Lee said she prepares her meals in a sanitized home kitchen with a full-face mask, gloves, hairnet and long sleeves. Although the Washington State Health Department doesn’t require long sleeves or a hairnet, Lee said she wants to minimize any possible skin contact with the food. 

She also makes all her food from scratch to avoid supply-chain health risks in case the virus enters a food processing facility. A majority of the ingredients used are from farms in Whatcom and Skagit counties, including Mariposa Farm, Waxwing Farm, Cairnspring Mills and Cascadia Mushrooms, Lee said.

The meal program started on March 13 when Lee began cooking about 80 meals each week using her own money and donations. She said about three-quarters of clients are low or no income with one-quarter paying full price for meals.

“My stress over food is one less thing to worry about thanks to these food deliveries and wonderful meals,” said Kassandra Graham, who has been ordering food from Lee after finding the program through a Facebook group dedicated to helping Whatcom County residents during the pandemic. 

“To have quality, delicious food in all this is a beautiful gift to me and those who face like things within the community,” said Graham, who is low-income and newly diagnosed with cancer.

Meals to the Vulnerable was inspired by Lee’s grandmother, Clara, whose mother turned the family’s kitchen into a diner during the Great Depression to feed her community. They offered food, work and a place to stay at their farm in Idaho.

“I was afraid of forgetting what she taught me,” Lee said. “When this came up, I [felt] like I knew what I needed to do.”

Lee said her recipes come from memories and experiences of people she’s met, as well as using ingredients on hand. She describes her food as “rustic American” because it encompasses different food cultures, from homemade pasta on Fresh Pasta Fridays to fajitas and three-bean chili. On April 17 the dish was nettle laminated fettuccine with purple deadnettle, wood mushroom and cannellini bean, with a chili and herb garlic knot and a rhubarb frangipane pie.

“Ona’s food is some of the better cooking I’ve had in my life,” said Duffus, who met Lee when Lee catered for her brother-in-law’s wedding. “[Lee] is a chef at heart. She cooks with love.”

Duffus said she has a great relationship with their clients despite not seeing them face-to-face. “It’s really amazing and eye-opening to see what a single meal can do for somebody,” 

Duffus said people have been really appreciative of what Meals to the Vulnerable is doing for them.

“I am extraordinarily grateful for the food they’ve been bringing,” said Opal Wilfong, who can’t leave the house due to being at-risk for COVID-19. 

Wilfong said having ready meals delivered is extremely helpful so they, and their daughter, can have fresh food.

“I’m so impressed with [Lee’s] spirit to help and be there for Bellingham, both for those in need and paying customers,” Graham said. “I feel I understand her and where her heart is with this endeavor.”

Donate to Meals to the Vulnerable here.

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