Each year as Thanksgiving approaches I think about hunger. About how many people are without food, such a basic necessity. About how giving thanks for our abundance throws into sharp relief those who are without. When I came upon the article How to feed your family from a food bank, featuring an interview with Sacramento chef Marisa Miller, I took notice. It got me thinking about food banks and health and nutrition and what I could do to help.
The Kitchn summed up tips from the article in bullet points nicely, but I wanted to talk about article from the opposite angle: how we can help feed families who visit the food bank. Many of us are closer than we’d like to think from needing assistance, a fact that has been brought to my attention many, many times since my husband was laid off. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to go from making ends meet to finding yourself food-insecure, and I can say with confidence that our lives would look much different if we didn’t live close to a strong network of family and friends. How your life turns out is in large part due to whom you were born with on your side, something which none of us can control.
During the holiday season we are all encouraged to donate holiday dinner staples to the needy: turkeys, mashed potatoes, pie; but I wanted to talk about the things we could give to our food banks the things that people need year-round that really count, nutritionally, that fit within the guidelines discussed in the article. It is always good to donate via a website like feedingamerica.org, but donating to a food pantry is a way you can affect positive change within your community.
Peanut Butter – This is one of Marisa Miller’s biggest suggestions because she said that she felt secure as long as she had peanut butter because it was a ready source of protein for her children. Aside from the value of making a peanut butter sandwich (or just eating it with a spoon as I am wont to do), peanut butter is an ingredient in many parts of Asian and African cuisine so its a multi-functional ingredient. The advantage of peanut butter over donating raw nuts is that nuts can go rancid over time and nut butters are much more shelf-stable. If your local food bank has a high-turnover rate of their food, however, I wouldn’t hesitate to donate quantities of nuts such as almonds or peanuts or even sunflower seeds. They are packed full of nutrients and protein and are among the cheaper nuts so you can get the most quantity for your money.
Whole Grain Bread – Those who visit food pantries likely see a lot of white, processed bread at this point in their lives. It’s the cheapest and stays fresh for a very long time. It’s also pretty devoid of nutrients. If you can find a sale on whole wheat bread (make sure the label specifically says “100% whole wheat” under ingredients – corporations can be very sneaky about this), or if you happen to make a trip to Costco, you can help fortify their diet with whole grain.
Dried Fruit – Dried fruit provides vitamins, dietary fiber, and sweetness, and there are so many tasty options now beyond prunes (though I like prunes quite a bit): dried mangoes, cranberries, blueberries, and more. Many kids love banana chips and good ol’ dried apple slices, too. Don’t forget about the humble raisin! Isobel loves any fruit in dried form, so this can be a great way of giving a healthy and welcome snack to a child in need.
Instant Coffee or Black Tea – Although I wouldn’t say that these two options have lots to offer nutritionally (antioxidants, maybe?) they are a healthier choice than soda when it comes to caffeine consumption. Many of us count on caffeine to boost us through difficult parts of the day. How much would you value finding coffee or tea in your food bag? I know that if I received it from a food pantry I would absolutely treasure it. And instant coffee and bags of tea last a long time.
Canned and Dried Beans – Dried beans are a most obvious choice for food donation: they are extremely cheap and very nutritious. But I wouldn’t discount donating canned beans simply because many people who need food assistance are also short on time. Maybe they work two jobs or go to school part time. Maybe an hour and a half on a bus is a typical part of their commute. The fact is that dried beans require lots of cooking time and not everyone can afford this investment. Canned beans are a great way to add a partial protein to a meal in a very short time. Chickpeas, navy beans, kidney beans, pinto beans and black beans are personal favorites.
Lentils - Lentils are a legume that’s an exception to the rule. Dried lentils can come together in about a half hour, and they are extremely nutritious.
White or Brown Rice – Brown rice has significant nutritional value over white rice, but if I’m being honest I have to admit that I love white rice and I know that from the Chinese and Japanese part of our population to the Mexican and Indian, a large bag of white rice (which I’ve found for as little as $7 before) would go fast and far in my community. I’d donate either or both. Other worthwhile grains to donate would be quinoa, millet, and barley, but I typically stick to rice because it’s the most popular. It’s the universal donor of grains.
Olive oil – Cooking oil, especially olive oil, is a necessary part of so many dishes. Providing a healthy oil like olive oil provides a great foundation for a meal.
Chicken Stock, Canned and Bouillon Cubes - Chicken stock is something I never want to run out of in my pantry. The less sodium varieties are not only healthier but taste better, too.
Canned and Jarred Vegetables - Some vegetables survive the canning process well, such as tomatoes, beets, and corn. Don’t forget the jarred vegetables, such as marinated mushrooms or pickled jalapenos and roasted red peppers. In this case I the workhorse would be canned crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, and tomato sauce. I keep plenty in my own pantry and they have dozens of uses. And kids usually don’t mind a tomato-y sauce. Chutney would be a great choice, too.
Canned and jarred fruits – A shelf-stable way to provide fruit to children that isn’t dried also lives in the pantry. Canned pineapple and peaches are not the same as fresh but delicious in their own right. Mandarin orange slices, too. Be sure to buy the kind with no sugar added for the healthiest option. Jarred fruit in the form of jelly and preserves is the most popular option of all and shelf-stable to boot.
Jarred Salsa – Salsa could fit neatly in the category above but I wanted to give it its own spot since it’s useful both as an ingredient and a condiment in its own right. I use jarred salsa in quick chili and casseroles and in addition to a dip for chips it can also be used as a sauce over plain chicken or on quesadillas, which makes a cheap and filling meal.
Olives - Olives are a great, nutritionally dense source of healthy fats. They make a great snack on their own or added to other things. The plain black version is also very cheap.
Jarred Pasta Sauce – A big pot of spaghetti can go a long way toward feeding a hungry family, but pasta sauce is also useful for homemade “pizza” or thinned with stock or bullion cubes to make a sweet tomato soup kids will enjoy. Also makes a great sauce over chicken or pork or a dip for chicken nuggets.
Salad dressing, Specifically Vinaigrette and Ranch – These two dressings are good choices because they do more than one thing in the kitchen. Ranch dressing is the picky child’s friend. Some kids will be more likely to eat whatever’s in front of them if it’s coated with ranch. Vinaigrette is a great choice because in addition to functioning as salad dressing it makes a great marinade for meat, or dress some drained, canned kidney beans with it, wait an hour or two, and you have a flavorful side dish. Vinaigrette has a lot to contribute.
Canned Fish – Canned fish is a great source of protein and Omega-3 fatty acids. Canned tuna and salmon are very popular but sardines and anchovies have their uses as well. The idea of canned meat is suspect at best, but canned fish is widely popular.
Oats – Steel-cut oats are extremely healthy for you and delicious. They can be made in about a half hour on the stove or with extremely little effort overnight.
Pasta – Everyone is familiar with the benefits of a large pot of cheap pasta, but it isn’t the most nutrient-packed item. I think a lot of whole-wheat pasta is extremely hit and miss so it’s not my first choice for donation. If it came to whole wheat versus regular pasta I’d rather donate regular pasta and then a vegetable-rich sauce and cans of olives. But there are whole-grain pastas that taste great: soba noodles, made from buckwheat, are both very delicious and very healthy. They are pricier, however.
Dark Chocolate – Dark chocolate is a delicious treat that also has nutritional benefits, and think of the mental boost the person receiving the chocolate will receive.
Find out your local food bank’s policy on perishable foods. In the article, Marisa states that produce was always welcome and that many people would donate the overflow from their garden. What a fantastic idea! Around here this wouldn’t just apply to gardeners: I know lots of people who have fruit or nut trees in their yard who lament its waste every year. Finding out if this is a viable option for your food bank really broadens your options: if they take refrigerated goods you can buy extra milk when it goes on sale, and if they take freezer goods you have a another way to donate vegetables and other freezable items, such as butter. If you regularly shop at a warehouse store (such as Costco) you can make the most of your bulk shopping and donations at the same time.
When searching for food to donate, try putting yourself in the perspective of what you would like to receive. Many times food donation is approached as a means to the end of cleaning out a cupboard. If you were in the receiving end of a food banks’ services, what would you like to find in that bag? What would cheer you to know you were giving your children? If you have thoughts on what you’d donate, add them below in the comments.
Adopting a food bank would be a great way to support your community and make a difference in a noticeable way to the world around you.