Rio Grande Skillet Dinner

Rio Grande Skillet Dinner

When I open my cupboard, I see more than enough food to sustain my family for a week, and likely much longer. For too many people, this is not the case.

This problem isn’t limited to some far-flung locale. It’s an issue right in our backyard.

This story, however, has roots in my teenage years. Throughout junior high and high school, I babysat regularly for a family by the name of Espenshade, and I developed a close relationship with the mother, Joan. (As a funny side note, my husband mowed their lawn. Although our “shifts” seldom overlapped and we didn’t date at the time, Joan joked when we got married years later than she considered herself the matchmaker!)

Fast forward to the year 2005. Joan attended a meeting at Carter & MacRae Elementary School, where she learned that a staggering 97 percent of the student body was enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program. Many students also relied on the school’s free breakfast, lining up outside in the early mornings through snow, wind, and rain.

Joan didn’t just hear statistics at that meeting. She saw children. She wondered what those children ate on the weekends when the school wasn’t there to help.

That spring, Joan founded Power Packs Project. Every Thursday afternoon, the organization provided a box of weekend food for families in need. Joan’s mission, however, was not only to feed, but to educate. So along with the ingredients for an affordable meal, the box included a simple recipe in Spanish and in English, nutritional tips, cost-saving strategies, and staples such as peanut butter, milk, cereal, and two pounds of fresh produce.

Over time, families were able to develop a binder filled with inexpensive, nutritious meals. I remember Joan saying that she wanted to show the families that they could eat a wholesome, great-tasting meal for less than the price of a frozen pizza.

By this time, I had gone from babysitter to mother, with two young boys of my own. As I raised my children, Joan saw hers through high school and college and continued to feed those in need. So much so, in fact, that Power Packs now serves 600,000 meals each year to 1,700 families. This translates into more than 7,000 mouths fed each and every weekend. A whopping 450 volunteers assist in all facets of the planning and distribution.

In 2013, Joan passed the executive director baton to Kim McDevitt. Kim was a class above me in high school and is a cousin of one of my dearest childhood friends. To say I’m proud of what these ladies, along with their many dedicated helpers, have accomplished is an understatement.

An early fundraising mailer included a recipe for Rio Grande Rice Bowls. It was a recipe used in one of the weekly food boxes, and I saved it. Over the years, I have made a version of this dish for my family, and it further exemplifies the organization’s impressive work. The recipe is a healthy, protein-rich combination of fresh produce and economical pantry items. It’s quick, easy, and most importantly, it tastes great!

To learn more, volunteer, or help in some way, visit or call 717.517.9220. If you would like to start a Power Packs Project in your community contact Kim McDevitt at

Rio Grande Skillet Dinner
The first time I made this, I was tempted to sprinkle it with cheese.  I offered it to my family but everyone agreed it was flavorful enough without.  For added protein, a cup or so of rinsed and drained black beans may be included. To ramp up the veggies, add a small bell pepper in your color of choice.

Yields 4 to 6 servings.
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  1. 1/2 pound ground pork or turkey sausage, casings removed
  2. 1 cup chopped onion
  3. 1 tablespoon chili powder
  4. 1 cup uncooked long grain white rice
  5. 1 (14.5-ounce) can chicken broth, divided use
  6. 2 cups zucchini, diced (from 1 large or 2 small zucchini; about 10 ounces)
  7. 1 (8-ounce) can corn, drained (or 1 cup frozen)
  8. 1 (15-ounce) can tomato sauce
  9. Optional toppings:  chopped cilantro, diced tomato, bell pepper, avocado, and/or sour cream
  1. In a 12- to 14-inch lidded skillet, sauté the onion and sausage over medium heat until browned, breaking up the meat as you go.  (If your skillet isn’t non-stick, lightly oil it first.)
  2. Add the chili powder and the rice and continue to cook, stirring to incorporate, for about a minute or two.  Stir in 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth, bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.
  3. After 10 minutes, stir in the zucchini, corn (there's no need to thaw, if frozen), and the tomato sauce. To the tomato sauce can, add the remaining broth and water to equal 1/2 cup.  Swish around to incorporate all the sauce that clings to the can, and then add to the skillet.  Stir the mixture well, cover, and simmer until the rice is tender, about 10 minutes more.
  4. If desired, top with cilantro, diced fresh vegetables of choice, and/or sour cream.
  1. This dish is delicious leftover so may be prepared in advance and reheated. Either reheat in the microwave or add a little extra broth and reheat in a covered pan on the stovetop or in the oven.
The Fountain Avenue Kitchen
Rio Grande Skillet Dinner

Kids helping with the Power Packs Project food pickup…

Power Packs Project distribution

…and one of the recipients getting an early start helping in the kitchen!

PPP Family
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  1. Beverley

    I love your story how adorable and you are just amazing the more I learn about you. I think that they can never be too young to learn about charity and food prep. Thank you Ann xoxo