Tina Kuna, who co-founded Dream Dinners, has won the John M. Fluke award. Kuna, who is photographed in the Mill Creek location of her business, has started the Living the Dream Foundation, a nonprofit focused on feeding families. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)

Dream Dinners co-founder Tina Kuna wins John M. Fluke Sr. award

Tina Kuna knew one of her customers at Dream Dinners was going through a difficult situation.

Kuna, who had co-founded the meal-assembly company with Stephanie Allen a few years prior, decided to provide dinners to the woman and her family.

“We assembled her meals and brought them to her house,” Kuna said. “Come to find out, her husband was diagnosed with cancer and had a very short time to live.”

Months later, Kuna received a thank-you note from the woman, who said that having those pre-made dinners meant she had one less thing to worry about during one of the worst times of her life.

The woman also sent a check for $50 and asked Kuna to pay it forward.

“The funny thing is, I’ve never cashed that check,” Kuna said. “I’ve used it as reminder that that was my goal. I knew that someday we would be able to create a nonprofit organization that would be able to focus on the health of families.”

In 2005, Kuna started the Living the Dream Foundation, a nonprofit focused on feeding families.

In the years since, the foundation has supported kids with leukemia and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The foundation’s main focus now is meal-packing events that help feed families locally and across the globe.

For her work in the community, Kuna is the recipient of this year’s John M. Fluke Sr. Community Leader Award from the Economic Alliance Snohomish County. The award “recognizes an individual who has demonstrated entrepreneurial spirit, and business and community leadership coupled with significant community contribution and commitment,” according to the EASC website.

Allen, Kuna’s business partner, led the effort to nominate her for the award.

“I came into the office after I read the description of the Fluke award, and I said ‘Isn’t that Tina?’ And everyone went, ‘Yeah, that’s her!’” Allen said.

“We started Dream Dinners to help friends and family get dinner on the table so they could have great kids. She’s taken it to the next level and really contributed to raising great kids around the world.”

What eventually became Dream Dinners began as sort of a girls’ night out for Allen and Kuna’s friends. Allen, who has a background in catering, planned some easy-to-assemble meals that they could take home and freeze.

“We all at that time had school-aged kids and we were trying to make life at home just a little easier,” Kuna said. “The whole reason behind this is to make dinner time a protected time that you get to connect with your family.”

Word spread and Allen was getting emails and phone calls from more and more people who wanted to join in, Kuna said.

“We just kept having to add nights to accommodate everybody,” she said. “We discovered, ‘Oh my gosh, we have a business here.’”

Allen asked Kuna to handle the business side of the company and the two have followed the same pattern for the past 15 years — Allen leads the food creative team and Kuna leads the finance team.

“We don’t play in each other’s sandbox,” Allen said with a laugh.

The first Dream Dinners store opened in Everett in 2002; the company began franchising in 2003 and there are now 85 stores in 25 states.

Kuna said she was surprised by the nationwide recognition — including newspaper and magazine stories and television highlights — Dream Dinners received when the company first started.

“Everyone seemed to be struggling with the same issues we were struggling with — how to have time at home and protect that family dinner hour that we grew up with,” she said. “Relationships are really built around dinner time because that might be the only hour that you get to spend together per day.”

Allen pointed out the impact having a home-cooked family meal can have on kids.

“They’re going to be healthier and have better mental health,” she said. “They’re going to make a bigger impact on their communities with having that home-cooked dinner.”

The nonprofit Living the Dream Foundation has recently partnered with the Friends and Family Community Connection to host meal-packing events where volunteers assemble nonperishable rice dinners.

“It’s a fun, fast-paced event where everyone walks away feeling great about what they’ve done and that they were able to contribute,” Kuna said.

Learning about the FFCC’s meal assembly and distribution program was an “a-ha” moment for Kuna.

“It mirrors exactly what Dream Dinners is trying to do in our own community around the dinner table,” she said. “Our vision with Dream Dinners is to grow great kids. Well what about those families who aren’t able to come to Dream Dinners?”

The meal-packing events are sponsored by Dream Dinners locations across the country. The rice dinners contain 21 essential vitamins and are 52 percent protein, and can help reverse the side effects of malnutrition, Kuna said. One-third of those meals are distributed among local food banks and outreach programs, and two-thirds are sent abroad to Tanzania and Haiti.

Allen said they started Dream Dinners so local families could raise great kids; she never thought of taking that concept around the world.

“I wanted to raise great kids in Snohomish County,” she said. “But then Tina took it to the next step and said, ‘Well let’s get dinners to Haiti and Tanzania.’ Each event raises 100,000 to 150,000 dinners that goes to families overseas so they can raise great kids.”

At a meal-assembly event in Snohomish two years ago, volunteers assembled 150,000 meals.

“The community just came out in droves,” Kuna said. “We had over 1,000 volunteers and in four hours we assembled 150,000 meals, which was amazing.

“It’s allowing this avenue for others to make a difference and educate them a little bit about what goes on even in our community,” she added. “We have hungry people here in Snohomish, we have hungry people in Everett — it’s a huge issue we want to help address, even if it’s just one rice bag at a time.”

Snohomish High School has become involved in the meal-packing events as well, assembling 75,000 meals at the school, Kuna said. Another event is planned for May.

“(Students are) reaching out to surrounding schools, even the elementary schools to help them do fundraising and decorate boxes for the food that’s going abroad,” she said, adding that every student can participate in the event, either through fundraising or with the meal assembly.

Allen, who’s been friends with Kuna for 30 years, said she’s proud that Kuna is receiving recognition for her spirit.

“Everything Tina does is with the most pure heart,” Allen said. “There’s no one I know that lives their business and their family life and their work ethic with more integrity than Tina does.

“The admiration I have for her goes beyond being both a business partner and a good friend.”

Allen said her first thought when she learned Kuna received the Fluke Award was that she wanted to bring Kuna’s parents to award ceremony with them. They raised Kuna at the dinner table, and Kuna’s children and grandchildren were raised the same way.

“You can see generationally the impact that Tina made because she was raised eating around the dinner table,” she said.

“Gathering families around food is built into a woman’s DNA,” she added. “We want to nurture and we’re nurturing families around the dinner table with food, no matter what county we’re in.”

Kuna’s work with Dream Dinners and the Living the Dream Foundation is a natural extension of the volunteer work she’s done throughout the community, from cancer walks to fundraising bike rides to serving hot meals at a Snohomish church.

“I’ve kind of lived by if you see a need, you fill the need,” Kuna said. “When the opportunities present themselves, I feel lead to walk through that door and do the work.”

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