The Highs and Lows of Food Bank Eating and the Synergistic Benefits of Feeding the Poor Well

In Praise of Real Food~

I remember once at a professional training, a colleague who came from a lower socio-economic background, took a bite of an organic, local apple slice from the snack table and  proclaimed, “damn!  this is what an apple is supposed to taste like?  I didn’t even think I liked apples!”  He had grown up on cheap, mass-produced apples– you know the type– mealy and tough, almost flavorless, lacking both sweetness and somehow also tartness.  So many of us grow up without knowing how good food can be, b/c we’ve stopped eating real food and suffice on analogs and facsimiles; fillers and fluff.  That’s even more so, in poor communities and households, many of whom live in food deserts, where healthful produce and other foods are not within reach, either distance-wise or cost or both.

I grew up in a middle class home in the 1970s and even though we always had enough “food”, much of it was of low quality– highly processed, devoid of nutrients, and if there were any nutrients left after the processing, they were zapped out in the microwave.  I actually had nutritional deficiencies as a child, though I never went hungry.  I remember the 1st time I tasted a real tomato, it was a revelation.  The ones we used to get were always an insipid nondescript orange, 4 in a row, in a green plastic basket covered with cellophane; They nourished neither body nor palate nor soul. The most satisfying part of the tomato was the rustling of the cellophane as it was unwrapped.

gross tomatoes


That interchange with my colleague at the snack table stuck with me and from that point on, whenever I donated to food drives, I would always give organic food, and something for the soul, like a nice box of specialty tea.  Even if the person receiving it couldn’t afford to buy it regularly, I wanted them to have that touchstone of the synergistic health-life-soul nourishing properties as a guiding light of what is possible. I imagined there were just so many cans of pinto beans a person can eat!

Never in a million years did I imagine I would be on the receiving end of a box of staples from a food bank!  Over the past few months, I’ve patronized food banks from Flagstaff to the Columbia Gorge in Washington and every climate zone in between, and let me tell you,  there is a wide variety in what is available and how it’s doled out.   One place just handed me a huge box of stuff, most of which I couldn’t eat due to my food sensitivities.  Another church gave me a brown grocery bag, less than half filled with single use plastic bowls of ramen and those individually wrapped peanut butter “cheese” crackers.

food pantry fridge
Super grateful to get produce of any kind. This batch had not only organics, but veggies from someone’s garden. That feels like love when you’re down and out, and I’m convinced it’s more nutritious too.

The oddest I encountered was in Felton, CA,  where I got 5 lbs of dried sweetened cranberries, and several cans of cranberry sauce (in July) and a 10 lb bag of pre-cut, pre-washed carrot chunks and a 5 lb bag of pre-cut iceberg lettuce that wouldn’t fit in my RV fridge.  Just what are you supposed to make with that?  And there’s always the dried pintos…but at least that’s real food, and depending on your constitution and ethnic make-up, beans and grains may be the perfect foods for you to eat. I’ve gained over 20 lbs these past few months from the extreme change in diet (plus extra stress=cortisol=fat).

Then there have been windfalls, like the unlimited amount of organic raspberries being given out outside the homeless service center in Santa Cruz.  I took a bunch, figuring I could freeze them for smoothies or more barren times, but then unfortunately, I didn’t have electricity for a week and my fridge stopped working, so they went bad before I could eat them all, as valiantly as I tried.  I’ve been to a food bank in Los Osos, CA where you had to pick a number and get in based on a lottery, and then sit around for hours until your # was called. Places where you had to prove residency and other places where no questions were asked.  My favorite type is where you get to go “shopping” and pick what you prefer.  It’s nice to have choice when so much control has been lost in other areas, and then I can pick things that won’t actually make me sicker.

Tons of Organic stuff too. This was from the "free" shelf..they told me I could take as much as i like b/c people don't usually take it. Are you kidding me? I hit the motherload! This has lots of simmer sauces, coconut milk in BPA free lined cans, Quinoa.....This is what you use to make all the staples taste decent.
Tons of Organic stuff too. This was from the “free” shelf..they told me I could take as much as i like b/c people don’t usually take it. Are you kidding me? I hit the motherload! This has lots of simmer sauces, coconut milk in BPA free lined cans, Quinoa…..This is what you use to make all the staples taste decent.

But since I’ve gotten back to Oregon, the eatin’ has been pretty darned good.  My diet has improved exponentially, and I’m eating a lot more vegetables and fruits,   mostly organic, and better protein for my body.  I recently got a pound of Organic grass-fed stew beef in my box that is going to make a nice pot of chili.  And here in the Columbia Gorge,  my jaw dropped when they handed me 2-3 lbs of frozen, wild-caught local salmon.  Don’t get me wrong,  I was uber-grateful to get that jar of Dollar Tree peanut butter when I was crossing the desert and didn’t have a dollar to spare to buy my own peanut butter,  but as I heal my body from several chronic and auto-immune health conditions, I feel the truth in my own body, that food is medicine; Food facsimiles are not medicine.  My body thrives on a diet of  a wide variety of organic vegetables, organic, sustainably raised animal protein and healthy fats….so it was soooo happy to have some naturally occuring Omega 3s and will be delighted to be nourished with CLA when I make that chili.   I was a vegetarian for over 19 years, and for the most part, since I became super broke, I’ve been a vegetarian by default, as I can no longer afford the good meats and fish nor nuts.  And I noticed a drastic decline in my energy levels and increase in brain inflamation when i returned to eating a grain based diet, even when i sprout and soak my beans and grains….they are just not great for healing Candida nor Adrenal Insufficiency.

food pantry list
I hit the mother-load of food bank donations a few weeks ago! I had to make a list of everything b/c I couldn’t believe my luck!

Today’s food pantry dinner: Local wild caught salmon, organic cauliflower, spinach & red onion over brown rice with Trader Joe’s Island Soyaki marinade/glaze. Literally, every single ingredient came from local food banks.  When you live somewhere where food grows abundantly and grocery stores are stocked with healthful, REAL food, this is what you glean. When you are in a food desert (or sometimes literally the desert), you get ramen in single use bowls and Dollar tree GMO peanut butter and week old bread that still tastes fresh b/c of all the preservatives. Don’t get me wrong, when I was hungry in the desert, I was grateful for that peanut butter, but this is AMAZING! And we think of salmon as this fancy food…..I can totally hear some Fiscally/Socially Conservative nay-sayer protesting giving “those people” expensive food like salmon.  Did you know in many states and counties,  there are laws that prohibit Food Stamp recipients from buying  better quality foods, in favor of cheap mass produced crap-ola?

food bank salmon
This meal was made entirely from food bank donations- Wild caught salmon, brown rice, spinach, cauliflower, red onion in a Pineapple Teriyaki glaze. It was a nourishing to the soul as it was the body.

Yet, here in the Pacific Northwest it is local and at least once upon a time, it was abundant. The Native peoples of this area have been eating tons of salmon for millenia….they are the Salmon People. The entire culture and lore is built around salmon. Not only is it delicious, but it’s synergystic, building brain and body health and emotional well being….with every bite, I get healthier and more able to contribute to the planet.  And it nourishes me on a spiritual or visionary level too.  When I sit down to a meal like this, I remember who I really am, what I believe and what I want to create in my life; That doesn’t happen when I eat pintos in a BPA-lined can, that inexplicably have preservatives and additives, when food preservation is the main function of the canning process to begin with.

Salmon is symbolically significant to First Nations People
Salmon is symbolically significant to First Nations People

By contrast, Salmon nourishes me, and in return, I am more able to protect the waters Salmon swims in.  And by supporting local fishers, the local economy gets a boost as well.  If food bank funding, whether it comes from national or local sources, is going to subsidize an industry, I’d rather have it subsidize local food producers than Big Ag, or whoever makes those 5 lb. cans of apple sauce. It facilitates relationships. And the healthier I am, body-mind-spirit, the less of a burden I am on the healthcare system and the more I am able to contribute to a healthy, vibrant world.  In the Peruvian Cosmovision, the central organizing principle is called Ayni,  which is somewhat reductivistically translated as “reciprocity” in English, but as you can see from my example, it’s much more dynamic and holographic.  It’s regenerative, and that’s good for everyone.

Take Home Practice:

For Those Who Can Afford Food:

  1. If you are donating to a food drive, donate high quality foods you yourself would eat.  Think about donating foods that poor folks can’t afford themselves, such as olive or coconut oil, pasture-raised eggs or organic milk. If you have a garden,  see if your local food bank accepts garden donations.
  2. If you have fruit trees, research gleaning organizations in your area, so that those who don’t have access can have fresh fruit too.
  3. Learn about food security in your area.  Are there food deserts, where people don’t have fresh and healthy foods to eat?   Are there farmer’s markets and do they offer matching tokens for shoppers receiving assistance, where for every dollar spent with a SNAP card, that amount is matched to make fresh foods more accessible?
  4. Learn how food waste is handled in your community.  Do grocery stores and restaurants throw out their expired or returned food or is it donated?
  5. How else might you participate in the Ayni or reciprocity of nourishment and sustainability in your community?   Perhaps you and several neighbors, or your place of worship can fund a CSA food share, to support local farmers and the hungry.
  6. Practice gratitude for all you nourish your body with, whether it’s cheap peanut butter or wild salmon.  Before you take your 1st bite, think of all the beings who contributed to the food ending up on your plate, from the farmer who might be working in the hot sun 12 hours a day, making barely enough money to feed his family , to the truck driver who brought it to market, the soil and microbes that added nutrients,   the sun and the rain or watershed.  The health of all these contributes to the health and energetic vibration of what you put in your belly.  Be grateful for what you have and commit to justice and sustainability all the way down the food chain.

For those on Food Stamps/Going to Food Banks

  1. If you yourself are on food stamps or needing to patronize food pantries, try focusing on nutrient dense foods rather than the cheapest thing that fills you up, such as buying a whole chicken– you can eat the roast chicken 1 night, use the leftover bits for soup or enchiladas the next night, use the carcass and organs/neck to make nutrient rich bone broth.
  2.  Learn ways to make food healthier, like sprouting your grains and legumes before cooking, adding chia seeds or lacto-fermenting vegetables for a natural probiotic boost that also preserves your food
  3. If you get a bunch of donated fruit, you can cut it up and freeze it for smoothies, or make your own low-sugar freezer jam (I sweeten mine with stevia and add chia seeds for a protein boost).
  4. Avoid buying processed or pre-prepared food if you are able.  That can be hard when work or family responsibilities or health challenges prevent you from cooking (or not having a stable place to live with a stove). BUT, if you can find a way to make it a routine, say 1 night a week and get others involved in the prep, you can make a bunch of meals that are tastier, cheaper and healthier. Make double recipes and freeze half, for those nights when you don’t have the time or energy.
  5. If you are at all able, reserve a little bit of your budget for more expensive condiments that will make the bulk foods you receive taste so much better, such as maple syrup, real vanilla extract, olive oil, fresh ginger or garlic and fresh herbs. Also,  hit stores that have bulk spices and buy just what you need.  They are often fresher and don’t have the additives that the cheaper bargain brands contain.
  6. Eat the food of your great-great-grandparents. Most traditional diets were healthy before highly processed, genetically modified diets became popular.  People of different ethnic backgrounds thrive on different diets, and it’s definitely not one size fits all.  But they usually feature inexpensive ingredients that are good for you, despite what mainstream nutrition (funded by Big Ag–surprise!) teaches.
  7. You can also use your food stamps to purchase seeds and plant starts.  Growing a garden, even if it is fresh herbs can save a lot of money and bring you tastier, healthier food and a connection to the earth.  Digging in the earth is also a natural anti-depressant.
  8. Watch episodes of Chopped to get inspired on how to cook on the fly with random weird ingredients you have no idea what to do with.

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