I haven’t talked a lot about food banks and food pantries in the past because I thought we made too much to qualify for them. On Fred’s railroad retirement we make just a tiny bit too much to qualify for food stamps and most other programs for low income people.
At the beginning of this month a dear friend who works with homeless vets explained to me that there were lots of food banks that we do qualify for, even if we make too much to qualify for food stamps and other programs.
Well, that was news to me, so I have been investigating my local food banks and seeing what they have to offer. Some of them allow you to go once a month, and some once a week. Some of them I qualify for, and some of them I don’t. For instance, I don’t live in the right zip code or the right county. Still, there are two I do qualify for, and I think there are a few others I still have to investigate.
One of the food banks gives you food once a month. The food comes in a big box. I had to be at the distribution center at 8am on a Saturday and then wait in line for the volunteers to load it up into the back of my car. It took about 45 minutes from when I arrived to when I left with my food. I was really curious about what they would give out since I haven’t used a food bank since I was a teenager.
What surprised me was how much junk food there was. We received a large bakery loaf of white bread (which Fred was very pleased about). The kids and I looked at it like it was poison. Then there was a box of Au Gratin Potatoes (more wheat and dairy) and 6 cans of condensed soup. All of the soup had wheat and/or dairy and just half a can had so much sodium in it, it was more than some people can eat in an entire day. Why do they feed poor people so much salt? There was a tall foil bag of beef stew (thickened with wheat flour). Also some macaroni, spaghetti and egg noodles. In addition there was a bag of sour cream and onion potato chips and some raisin bread, plus a quart size tetra box of 1% milk. Finally there was a frozen 2-pound slab of pork ribs that had wheat starch in the sauce that it was marinated in. Wheat starch, really?
This was the stuff that the kids and I could not eat. Fred is happy about it though, so I am just leaving it all for him.
The rest of the box contained 3 huge bags of fresh organic celery. A 16-ounce box of raisins, a 32-ounce bag of dried blueberries (awesome!), a 2-pound bag of navy beans, an 18-ounce jar of peanut butter, a 12-ounce bag of macadamia nuts (woo hoo!), cans of low sodium vegetables like tomatoes, corn, green beans, peas, black eyed peas, kidney beans, and some okra with tomatoes. There was also a 2-pound bag of long grain rice that said “Gluten Free!” right on the label and a 16-ounce box of instant mashed potatoes. Awesome again!
There was also food for both my cats and my dog, and a bag with toothpaste, a couple of tooth brushes, a few feminine hygiene supplies and a box of aspirin. I thought the aspirin was a nice touch.
For the most part, I found the box to be worthwhile. While half of it wasn’t stuff we could eat, fully half of it was food we can eat and that we like. And that is what I choose to focus on. The glass is half full, not half empty. And as it turns out, the glass is refillable. After all the Lord has told me that my cup “runneth over.”
The second food bank has a lot more fresh food. Patrons are welcome to visit once a week. It’s open from Tuesday through Saturday from 10am to 11:30am. People start waiting in line outside the door as early as 7am on Saturdays, wanting to be sure they are there early enough. But on Tuesdays the line doesn’t start until about 9am. I get there at 9:40am, after my morning walk with a girlfriend. I’m usually #15 in line, or something like that. There are often as many as 30 to 40 people in line on their slowest days. This tells me there are a lot more hungry people out there than we realize.
The food is mostly fresh or frozen. There are very few canned or packaged goods, except for the bread and bakery sections. All of the food that local supermarkets have that is approaching it’s sell-by date, or any fruit or vegetables that have small flaws or bruises are donated to this food bank. And the selection is amazing!
The first thing I learned is that patrons are not allowed to touch the food. Volunteers touch the food. Patrons point and show the volunteers what they want. Volunteers then hand it to the patron. Patrons must bring their own bags and boxes. I noticed a lot of people had those suitcases on wheels and used them like buggies to tote their food. That seems pretty clever to me. I brought reusable grocery bags, sturdy ones.
First you get 1 large or 2 smaller packages of frozen meat. I noticed that people mostly ask for sandwich meat or ground beef or even pork chops, but no one wanted the fish. And it was pretty fish too, like planked salmon, or smoked salmon or tilapia fillets with rosemary and thyme. So I asked for fish, and they were happy to give it to someone who wanted it. I got to thinking about it later, and probably the people who ask for sandwich meat and ground beef know how to prepare them, how to eat them. But they don’t know how to cook fish, and for them the fish would be like the canned soup is to me. Not food that they could eat. To me though, fish is the most amazing thing they could give me, and is something I can’t afford to buy as often as I’d like. So Win/Win. I’m not taking anything away from people who are super duper poor, and they aren’t being burdened with weird fish that they don’t like and don’t know how to cook anyway.
The few packaged foods are next, it’s mostly a choice between canned soup or canned vegetables, although sometimes they have cereal and boxed goods. I’ve been given gluten-free pancake mix, gluten-free pizza dough mix, gluten-free snack bars, jasmine rice, canned pumpkin and canned chicken over the last month. So even though it’s packaged stuff, there is gluten free stuff available, and no one else wants it. I watched the volunteer at that station try to give away the snack bars over and over again, and no one wanted them because they were “weird gluten free stuff.” Well to me that is the good stuff, so I was happy to take it off of her hands. It had an expiration day that was a week away. My kids ate them in two days, so no problem there.
Next is the fresh fruits and vegetables section. I saw person after person say no to the fresh fruits and vegetables. They say yes to bags of carrot sticks and bags of salad, but apparently poor people don’t know how to prepare a lot of fresh vegetables because the volunteer in that section works hard to give it all away and people just don’t want much of it. That’s good for me though, because I do want it. I tell the volunteers in this section that my kids have allergies, and that the fresh fruits and vegetables are what we eat. Period. So any of it that they want to give away, we are happy to receive. For the most part, they load me up. Just this week I received:
- 1 pear, 9 apples, 3 grapefruit, 7 oranges, 2 star-fruit, 12 guavas, 7 spotty bananas, 1 large cantaloupe, 1 large pineapple
- 14-ounce family pack of apple slices
- Deli Tray of cut up fruit including cantaloupe, watermelon, grapes, strawberries & pineapple
- Deli Tray of vegetable sticks, carrots, celery, broccoli, celery, baby tomatoes and pea pods. (It came with a box of ranch dressing which I gave to Fred)
- 9 avocados, 1 large eggplant
- 8 ounce bag of fresh snow peas
- 1 green pepper, 1 red pepper, 2 yellow peppers, 1 orange pepper, 4 habaneros, 2 jalapenos, 1 serrano, 1 Anaheim and 2 cherry peppers
- 4 cucumbers, 4 small zucchini,
- 20-ounces baby tomatoes, 2 tomatillos
- 1 bag organic kale, 1 bag organic mustard greens, 1 bunch collard greens
- 11 small to medium red potatoes, 3 sweet potatoes, 2 turnips, 18-ounces parsnips
- 5 cloves garlic, 1 knob fresh ginger, 5-ounce pack of fresh basil,
Since this was the end of the month, I think there may have been more food than usual. But this is only a little bit more than I usually get. Most of the patrons do not get as much fresh fruit and vegetables as I do because they don’t want them. I do want them, so I ask for them.
Next in line is the deli sandwiches, deli fried chicken, fresh dairy such as milk, sour cream, goat milk sometimes, cream cheese etc. In other words, lots of stuff I can’t eat, my kids can’t eat. They do have hummus or guacamole or fresh salsa sometimes–all of which we do eat. Sometimes I have to skip this section, sometimes not.
I noticed that a lot of the other patrons really love the pre-made sandwiches, even more than the small packages of fried chicken. They act like they are getting something really good, and are not at all interested in the hummus or guacamole or salsa. I tend to think that my family eats pretty normally, at least in my mind, but now I’m not so sure.
Next are the bakery desserts. There are mountains of them. Each patron is allowed two packages. There are sheet cakes and carrot cakes and pastries and donuts and pies and cookies I don’t even know what else. I do not look at them and I never take any of them. They are poison to me and to my family and I refuse to wander down that dark and dangerous street. Self-denial has a place in every Christian’s life, and for me it’s in the free-cake section of the food pantry. Praise God I am not a slave to my appetites. Amen.
There was one older lady I saw who had rejected the fruits and sweet potatoes because she had diabetes. The volunteer tried over and over to interest the woman in a variety of items, but she was determined not to take them. That same lady though, when she got to the cake section, she loaded up a ginormous sheet cake and a box of 18 chocolate pastries.
Human nature is a funny thing. I watched her and had so much compassion. She said no to the fruit and sweet potatoes so she could say yes to the hydrogenated shortening, sugar-filled, white flour junk. To her it was a better choice than the fresh fruits and sweet potatoes. Not too many years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to resist the cake and pastry either. There but for the grace of God go I.
Next is bread. Sometimes there is gluten free bread, sometimes there is organic wheat bread. When none of these are available I look for rye bread, which Fred adores. Lastly is a section of free bread that is past it’s sell date and patrons can have as much of it as they like. Some people load up 2 dozen loaves. I look for rye bread for Fred, but most of it is gross white bread so I keep going.
Then, laden with my reusable grocery bags, I walk up the hill to my car and bring the food home. Usually at least one son is home to help me unload.
I get to work right away. Anything that needs to be prepared or cooked immediately gets my full attention. Most of the produce will last a few days in the fridge, but usually some of it is dead-ripe and ready to be eaten. For Tuesday dinner we have giant vegetable salads, vegetable soup or veggie sticks with hummus or homemade guacamole and then whatever was leftover and needs to be taken out of the fridge to make room for all the new produce.
This week I’m planning on making:
- African chicken & greens one night
- Ground beef or ground turkey dish with spaghetti sauce, eggplant and zucchini over gluten free spaghetti
- A giant pot of beans to serve with avocados, chili peppers, onions and bell peppers, with corn tortillas
- Roasted root vegetables with marinated chicken breast
- Leftover beans with greens and cornbread
- Tilapia (my frozen fish this time) with yellow rice and a collection of whatever vegetables need using up fried in vegetable oil.
The fruits get cup up and served for breakfast or lunch. Lunch is leftovers from the night before plus fresh fruit. Breakfast is smoothies or oatmeal or GF pancakes or eggs & hash browns.
I think if I find one more food bank that gives away more dried beans and rice (and maybe some more potatoes) that combined, they would all pay for about 60% of the food we eat a month. I find that amazing. I also like being able to afford my health insurance with the money we’re saving. That is like the most awesome thing ever.
At first I was a little bit worried about taking food away from people who “really need it.” After a few visits though, I see that this is all food that would be thrown away if it weren’t given to low income people. Throwing away perfectly good food when people go hungry in your own neighborhood is a terrible waste. In addition, the food I want, is not the same food that most of the patrons want. They don’t want fish. They don’t want weird gluten free items. They don’t want the mountain of fruits and vegetables I want. So for the most part, I do not feel like I am taking food that someone more deserving should have. I am taking food that works for my family, and oddly, this isn’t food that the other patrons are interested in eating.
Does anyone else visit food banks? How does your experience compare?