Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Food Bank Soup

I’d been wondering how to approach this subject, but this post at Virginia Lee’s blog gave me the focus I needed.
No one knows how to cook, and by extension, to think how to feed themselves anymore. Our grocery stores are filled with ready-made meals that require a few minutes of nuking. Certain of them have ingredients that I can’t pronounce. I’m curious as to what they are, but maybe I don’t want to know.

Canned tuna comes ready-mixed with mayonnaise. Convenient, of course, if hideously overpriced. Buy tuna. Buy mayo. Mix them yourself. Get up 10 minutes earlier if you have to. It’s cheaper and probably healthier.

Even if we wanted to make something ourselves it’s difficult to find the ingredients. It’s easier to buy the ready-made roast or the cubed, herbed potatoes, or sliced peppers, or the cooked bacon. Who cares what’s in it? It’s quick and it’s tasty. We’ve gotten so used to having everything ready that we’re losing the ability to make our own anything, including, as noted above, sandwich filling.

It’s one thing if you can afford to buy these items, but what about the people who can’t? Oil-rich Alberta is filled with food banks and they, in turn, are crying for donations. It seems the more we have the less we think of others.

The food bank issue has several aspects, but I’ll only deal with a few. One aspect is food banks need certain kinds of food like canned soups and beans. When those items fall short the money to buy meat or some such is put toward canned goods instead.

Another point is food banks must follow the same rules as grocery stores, and rightly so. No dented cans, nothing with a soiled, ripped, or missing label, and nothing that fell off the delivery truck.
But many of these items are just fine. A torn label on a can of tomato paste does not affect the contents. The box of packaged salads that fell off the truck is fine, too.

But a very big part of the problem is many donated items flummox the clients. Canned kidney beans are a known commodity, but dried kidney beans? Garbanzos? Mung beans? Lentils? What do we do? Who do we ask? Why should we bother?

So these unwanted foods take up space until they have to be disposed of. Good food gets tossed because it either can’t legally be distributed to the needy or because no one has a clue what to do with it. We’re so used to getting our food microwave-ready that anything that requires prep time, like dried beans, is a mystery.

So volunteers dispose of the food items. Because a family member is a volunteer at a food bank we have benefited from this disposal.
We’ve got mung beans and chick peas, and lentils and barley. We’ve got canned coconut milk and dozens of cans of tomato paste, and excellent, cold–pressed extra virgin olive oil in perfect containers.

We’ve had escargot which we did over the campfire, and quail’s eggs which I used in a warm potato salad. We’ve had red-wine vinegar and raspberry vinegar, and plenty of curry spices in various forms from dry to pastes.

The other night I threw together a quick soup with some chicken bullion, mung beans, and curry spices that were not distributed, as well as our own veggies and leftovers and a bit of rice.
It took less than 10 minutes to throw it together and it simmered about an hour. I made it because I knew how and I thought as I did it how much better our world would be if everyone else knew how to do it, too.


Crabby McSlacker said...

How frustrating that healthy nutritious food is going unused by needy people in favor of less healthy processed food! Would some preprinted instructions to hand out with bulk food items help, or do you thinks it's a motivational issue more than an informational one?

BTW, I've read about a movement of people in the states who rescue perfectly good food out of dumpsters and subsist on it out of principle--that too much perfectly edible stuff gets thrown away.

While I'm not quite ready to go dumpster diving myself, it does seem to point to a lot of waste in our food distribution system.

the Bag Lady said...

Instant gratification. With everything. This post is right on as far as the ready-to-eat stuff goes. God forbid they should have to wait for something to cook!
And it is frustrating that all that perfectly usable food is going unused. Glad that you are managing to rescue some of it, Leah!
Crabby, if you only knew how much food gets thrown away from one single restaurant in a day, you'd choke. Not that the Bag Lady is any more eager than you are to go dumpster-diving, but surely there must be a remedy for this wastefulness.

bunnygirl said...

What's really scary is that we're not talking about complicated cooking. What's so hard about boiling rice or soaking beans, replacing the water and then boiling them?

I understand why people with school and jobs think they don't have time to cook, although this is usually a misperception.

But when it comes to people without jobs, it seems to me that unless they're disabled or so poor they don't even have a hotplate and a pot, they don't much excuse for not cooking. It's cheaper and healthier than most of what I see people buying with their food stamps at Kroger!

No one seems to know even the simplest basics of cooking any more, though. I once took a class with a woman who justified her fast food habits by saying that with work, school and kids, she had no time to cook a healthy meal.

Huh? A crock pot is only $15 new! You can fill it up and plug it in a heck of a lot faster than you can get through the drive-through! Go to class, come home, voila! Dinner is served!

If you don't make time for healthy eating, you'll just end up having to make time for the doctor.

Leah J.Utas said...

Yes, Crabby, it's very frustrating.
Instructions would help, but it's only part of the answer. A great lot of it is motivation, and a great portion of that is entitlement. If everyone else gets to have ready-made, why can't we?

I've read about the rescued food movement, can't think of what it's called right now, but they're making a very good point when they do it.

Oh Bag Lady, that's so true. We actually think we don't have time to cook and/or we're too important to wait.
And, umm, quail's eggs aren't bad. They're awfully rich, though.

Yes, Bunnygirl, yes. Prep's not hard, we just have to know how to do it and be motivated to learn, and understand that we have the time. And we need to make it known that there's nothing wrong with making our own food.

Crock pot cooking is better and healthier than any fast food that's available. And it is considerably cheaper.
Put the beans in the soaking water before you go to bed. Drain and add to crock pot with spices, water, veggies or what- have- you. Forget about it and go about your day. Come home to good, home-cooked food.
I could go on. I may have to do another post about this.

Hilary said...

It's so true that we've removed ourselves from basic cooking. That trend started in the 50's with canned veggies and fruit becoming the norm in so many households. And I'll be the first to admit that I'd much rather pick up a deli-prepared three bean salad or Mediterranean salad than soak, cook and store beans for one. My son won't touch them with a ten-foot fork.

My first thought was what Crabby said.. to include handouts with bulk foods to instruct those in need about how to cook and store these items. Maybe even a simple recipe or two. Perhaps we'll start a new trend.

Reb said...

Okay, I just took out my very long response, maybe I should do a post on my experience with the food bank.

Suffice it to say, yes, I agree they need to hand out bulk foods and instructions for a lot of people and stop wasting food.

the Bag Lady said...

Okay, Leah, now you've got me going, too. You don't even need to soak the damned beans overnight! Boil them for 3 minutes, let them soak for an hour, then replace the water and cook them for a couple hours. I have an absolutely fabulous recipe for doing beans this way that I got out of a Good Housekeeping magazine back in 1978 that makes people lick out the bowl! (That really did happen...)If anyone wants the recipe, I can post it on my blog. In fact, I might anyway. We can start a trend. 'Course, I might then have to change the name of my blog to Bag Lady's Blasters...

Leah J.Utas said...

You're absolutely right, Bag Lady. But that might seem like too much to do in the morning. The overnight soak (with summer savoury to help with digestion) is way less work.
I've got your recipe, but post it anyway.

Hilary, offering information with the food is a good idea. I'm not sure it would catch on as there's that whole convenience/entitlement issue, but I agree. The information should be made available.

Reb - I'm curious about your food bank experiences.

Missicat said...

Kind of late to this entry...but what you said about when people get rich they don't think of others is sooo true. If a poor person has two cans of food, if someone needs one of them he will give it up. If a rich person has a 100 cans of food, he will keep them all. *sigh*

Leah J.Utas said...

That's so sad but true, Missicat.

Stephanie said...

Here at the Food Bank of Central New York, we are always trying to distribute less-processed food ... beans and cabbage and squash instead of boxed mixes and frozen dinners. We distribute cooking instructions and recipes for some of our less well-known foods, and even do recipe samples at some food pantries.

While I personally prefer to cook as much from scratch as possible, I know for many struggling families it's not an option. For instance, a single mother working two jobs, who doesn't own transportation -- most of her day is spent either working, or getting to and from work on the bus. The few hours she has with her kids, she wants to spend with them. Taking an extra hour to peel and chop vegetables for the crock pot (even if she had one) is a real sacrifice.

For those in need, you need to work with what they can and can't do -- and then give them help to move things from that second category to the first.

Virginia Lee said...

I so hear you, Leah. In Memphis my mother worked in a preschool for developmentally delayed infants, babies and toddlers and she was the oldest employee there. She lived simply (I was off doing theatre) but still cooked for herself. One day while unpacking her lunch that was made from leftovers, one of her co-workers said, "I bet you still boil a pot!" This apparently boggled the younger woman who only ate fast food or bought prepared foods from the grocery store to be heated in a microwave. Cooking is such a basic tool and it's so much more economical to cook from scratch than to buy prepared foods. It's also healthier for you know what ingredients are being used and you can control fat, sodium, and any potential allergens in your food much more effectively.

Thanks for the mention, dear. I'm very flattered.

Leah J.Utas said...

Stephanie - I'm so glad you stopped by. It's good to learn what other Food Banks are doing. I'm glad that's happening and I wish more did it.

Virginia Lee - What a sad statement from your mom's co-worker. As if there's something wrong with making your own food.
Cooking is a basic survival tool. Everyone ought to know how to do it.