Do you have a slow cooker gathering dust in your pantry?

Up until a few years ago, Beth Rowan certainly did. The Northwest Austinite and her husband had received a slow cooker as a wedding gift 20 years ago, but like many well-intentioned kitchen appliances, it sat mostly unused until Rowan decided she needed help getting a healthful dinner on the table for her busy family of four.

Shuffling middle schoolers from school to their various classes and meetings didn’t leave much time for making dinner, but Rowan refused to give into the easiest option that she saw many families relying on: a spin through the drive-thru.

She pulled out the slow cooker and watched it transform dried beans and inexpensive cuts of meat into healthful meals that everyone in her family seemed to enjoy.

As she started calculating how much time, effort and money it cost to make meals in the slow cooker, she realized how much more food you could get for your dollar — and for relatively little effort — from a slow cooker than at a fast-food restaurant.

She could feed her entire family for several days for what it costs to buy four combo meals at $5 each. "I realized that people spend so much money on fast food and don’t get much for it," she says.

This isn’t news to families who regularly use slow cookers, but Rowan knew that many Austin families on a budget might not even have a slow cooker, must less recipes and knowledge of how to use them.

With some encouragement from her husband, Rip, Rowan started a Facebook group called Slow Cooking in a Fast-Food World and applied for a $1,000 grant from the Austin chapter of the Awesome Foundation, a nonprofit that gives "a micro-genius grant for flashes of micro-brilliance," according to its website.

In May, she won the grant and was able to purchase 30 slow cookers to give away to low-income families in Austin.

Over the summer, she developed several weeks’ worth of meal plans that not only guide cooks on how and when to prepare the ingredients and dinners, but also how to incorporate the leftovers into other meals during the week. Rowan wanted to make sure most of the recipes were for dishes that her own children, 11-year-old Leah and Claire, 14, would like, and her friends offered to help test the meal plans to make sure they worked and were easy to follow. (Rowan even hosted a cook-off where she asked friends to bring their best egg casseroles prepared in a slow cooker.)

For example, one meal plan calls for making pulled pork with coleslaw on Monday, pork tacos on Tuesday; lemon chicken on Wednesday, chicken fried rice on Thursday; Moroccan chickpeas on Friday, followed by minestrone soup on Saturday.

The cost for all the ingredients for that week of dinners? About $30.

"To think that you could buy food for a week" for that amount, she says. "It’s pretty amazing."

This fall, she teamed up with Dee Gonzales, a parent support specialist at Kealing Middle School, who helped spread the word about Rowan’s project. At a family fair in November, Rowan gave away 15 slow cookers to families that Gonzales had helped identify as ideal recipients.

"So many of our parents have to work two jobs," Gonzales says. "They need to leave food already prepared for the older children, and with the slow cooker, they can utilize inexpensive cuts of meats and still make dishes that have nutritional value."

Instead of eating high-calorie, low-nutritive snacks or microwaved food — or not eating at all until the parent comes home late — the kids can have a full meal that’s ready to eat when they get home from school.

Another benefit is that because most slow cooker dishes don’t require active cooking over direct heat or flame, they are a safe alternative to traditional cooking for children who are old enough to help put the meals together but not old enough to cook food on the stove.

Gonzales says she’s already seen an impact on the families who received the slow cookers last month. Instead of eating just pork or beef, some of them are eating more chicken dishes, which are typically lower in fat. Gonzales says that in the next few months, she hopes to give slow cookers to families in some of the elementary schools that feed into Kealing.

Rowan’s project is still small, and she has no intention of leaving her day job — she’s an editor at a local education publishing house — but one way that she plans to build her slow cooker community is to put to use some of the many unused slow cookers that are likely sitting in homes all over Central Texas by setting up drop-off locations around Austin.

If you have a gently used (or new but unneeded) slow cooker that you’d like to donate it, just bring it to one of the following locally owned retail outlets and tell them that you’d like to donate it to Slow Cooking in a Fast-Food World: Foodie Kids (3742 Far West Blvd., 346-3333), Serve: Gourmet Gadgets and Goods (241 W. Third St., 480-0171) and Faraday’s Kitchen Store (1501 RM 620 North, 266-5666).

If you’d like to contact Rowan about helping put slow cookers in the hands of families who need them or would like to try some of the slow cooker meal plans that she’s created for the project, email her at slowcookinginafastfoodworld@gmail.com or go to Facebook.com/SlowCookingInAFastFoodWorld.