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Chester County Press

Local Girl Scout helps families eat better

10/15/2018 10:27AM ● By J. Chambless

Julia McDonnell, 17, earned her Girl Scout Gold Award with a new cookbook she compiled.

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Families served by the West Chester Food Cupboard are eating better, thanks to Julia McDonnell, a senior at Unionville High School.

McDonnell, 17, earned her Girl Scout Gold Award this month for creating a cookbook that uses fresh ingredients to help low-income families eat healthier foods and save money doing it. The Clean Eats Cookbook was compiled by McDonnell, and her elegant photographs of each dish make the book look entirely professional.

During an interview last month, McDonnell said she started in Girl Scouts in the second grade, and has continued with a troop based at Kennett High School through this point, earning the highest honor possible for her Gold project. Her family lives in West Chester, so “I was already familiar with the West Chester Food Cupboard,” she said. To fit in the research, recipe testing and photography, she put the cookbook together mostly over the summer.

“I did all of the paperwork from about early March to April, and then I met with the people at the Food Cupboard, then started doing recipe testing and all the photography during the summer,” she said. “I just got my Gold Award on Oct. 4.” A ceremony will be held in December to formally honor McDonnell's project.

During her research, McDonnell said she learned “poverty and obesity are linked,” she said. “If you think about it, McDonald's is much cheaper than going to the grocery store and buying fresh fruit.”

Families facing food insecurity frequently resort to fast food, or if they lack transportation, they buy what's available in corner stores near their homes. That food is frequently processed and not healthy.

McDonnell visited the food cupboard to see what types of foods they typically have on hand, and then researched recipes online that used those ingredients.

“When I visited the food cupboard, I saw a range of people – all ages, races, genders. The cupboard serves about 600 families a month,” McDonnell said, emphasizing the size of the food insecurity problem, even in a wealthy area like Chester County. “The families can come once a month. But they're limited by maybe the price of the food, time constraints, and having to pay the bills first before they eat.”

The book has elegant photography by McDonnell as well.

 “I had a lot of ideas,” she said. “Originally it was supposed to be 10 per category – breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks, dessert – and then I narrowed it down to nine. I got inspiration from different food blogs, I looked at Pinterest a lot. The people at the food cupboard recommended that the recipes serve four, and then the families could adjust them.” After finding recipes that had the right ingredients and were not too time-consuming, McDonnell made samples of each one and tested them on her family, as well as the families served by the food cupboard. The 45 best recipes made the cut.

The finished dishes were taken to McDonnell's porch, where natural light makes them look delicious. She carefully photographed each one on a white plate to give the cookbook a nice cohesiveness. Then she had the final book printed by the online publisher

“I brought in some of the books to the food cupboard a couple of weeks ago, and their reaction was 'Wow, this is amazing. It looks like a professional book,'” McDonnell said. “Then I went back the next Fifty copies of the cookbook were donated for the clients of the food cupboard to take for free. It is also available for $15 as a fundraiser for the organization at There's also an online version being planned through the food cupboard website,

“I got the idea for the Clean Eats title after looking at the different food blogs,” McDonnell said. “The ones I looked at promoted clean, healthy eating. To me, 'Clean Eats' means fresh, homemade, not having processed foods.”

As a senior, McDonnell is busy making plans, possibly in the health care field, she said.

At Unionville, she is taking a class through the Allied Health program at the Technical College High School, and is the editor-in-chief of the Unionville High School newspaper. She plans to continue her involvement in scouting after graduation.

“They have this program called Take the Lead, and I applied to be a presenter,” she said. “It's a day-long event. As a presenter, I would shadow a woman in the community and write up an introduction to introduce her at the event. And there's a Girl Scout alumni network as a way to keep in touch.”

McDonnell's mother, Barbara, said, “When she gets an idea in her head, she does it. I'm really proud of her. She did a lot over the summer. She did a couple of college courses, she did an online course and got her driver's license. She's a workaholic.”

To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email