MORGANTOWN — When former Monongalia County Commissioner Ed Hawkins pitched the idea to include an industrial community kitchen as part of the Mon County Center, he likely didn’t envision that inside of two years it would become part of a national model for the central kitchen concept.
But that’s exactly what’s happened thanks to the venue’s relationship with its very first client, Healthy Kids Inc.
Since 2021, Healthy Kids has gone from preparing 80 nutrient-dense, locally sourced meals from scratch each day to 1,000.
Those meals are delivered to childcare centers across Monongalia, Marion, Taylor and Harrison counties, as well as the Wise Path Recovery Center in Westover.
“The Mon County Center has become a model for other kitchens across the state, to create other hubs across the state. It’s a model that others are now using. They’re coming to the kitchen and wanting to see. It’s actually grown even beyond West Virginia,” Healthy Kids co-founder Mandy Curry explained.
The kitchen recently hosted a representative of Bezos Academy, a network of tuition-free Montessori-inspired preschools funded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
“They are wanting to do central kitchens for all their Montessori schools across the country. They picked 13 central kitchens across the country to look at and we were one of them,” Curry said. “They sought us out.”
But they’re just getting started.
The next phase of the county’s kitchen, focused on food preservation, is expected to come on line this month.
“We are in the process of getting our manufacturer’s license too, so that will allow us to do additional things out of the preservation kitchen, one of which is the creation of individual meals, frozen meals, that can be produced out of that kitchen and sent to other parts of the state – senior meals, after school meals, whatever it might be. We’ll have that ability,” Curry said.
Aiding that process will be funds from an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) Power Grant. ARC recently awarded the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition $1,134,341, some of which will come to Healthy Kids over the next three years as part of ARC’s aim to grow the agricultural sector, promote economic growth and support access to locally sourced food.
Curry said the agency has a goal of producing one million meals out of multiple kitchens in that time frame.
Mary Hastings, who works on behalf of the Healthy Kids nonprofit, Project Healthy Kids, said those funds can also be used to assist local farmers.
“As part of the ARC Power Grant, we’re working to establish the Mon County Center as more of a food hub than it already is. If there are any farmers interested in selling into the entrepreneurial kitchen, we’re looking to buy local produce, beef, eggs and things like that,” Hastings said. “Also, through our partners at the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition, they’re going to offer technical support for farmers who want to grow their capacity or their production plans.”
Those interested can reach Hastings at email@example.com.
Healthy Kids uses the kitchen from 6 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday through Friday, but it’s available for rent around the clock.
“It’s a full-scale, multi-use kitchen,” Mon County Center Director Rachel Mitchell said. “We do evenings and weekends. It was designed to be a 24-hour kitchen. We can do a lot in there.”
Contact Mitchell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-291-9128 to inquire about renting the community kitchen.
Both Curry and members of the Monongalia County Commission said Mitchell has been instrumental in making this partnership work. Curry noted the resources included in the $400,000 kitchen are also central to the early success.
“What makes all that work is the equipment. You equipped it so nicely to be able to do what it does. Things like the blast chiller; that’s a gift for communities to have that. Many don’t have that. There’s equipment here that’s wonderful for the community and it’s going to help a lot of people,” Curry said. “I don’t know … it’s just perfect.”