This week, my family and I are taking part in A Week in Their Kitchen, an initiative for Hunger Awareness Day, living exclusively on the items in a food bank hamper to help give people a sense of what it’s like. On Monday, we went down to the local food bank and went through the same process the other clients go through in order to get our hampers. As we waited in line, it struck me hard how many kids were in the room, waiting with their mothers, mostly – I saw about a dozen in the hour that we were there, and it wasn’t a very busy day. 41% of the Calgary food bank clients are children under 12 – another large percentage are teenagers.
I was astounded by the quantity of food we received, but I panicked a little when I got home, unloaded the bags and bins and discovered there was no fruit (besides a dozen plantains) and the vegetables were limited to 4 bags of coleslaw, a bag of potatoes, 5 packages of mushrooms and a small bag of green beans and two yellow zucchini that were banging on death’s door. The quantity was fine, but the variety wasn’t what we’re used to. Of course, what you get depends entirely on what has been donated. It’s never exactly the same. We got the hugest box of Oreos I’ve ever seen, plus another sleeve of them, half a dozen donuts and three 4-packs of bubblegum and cotton candy flavoured Jell-O pudding, in shades of pale blue and pink.
(W: “What is THAT?” M: “Not food.” I think we’ll be using it as finger paints.)
We got three produce bags packed with miscellaneous granola bars, cereal bars and packets fruit snacks and chocolate Easter eggs. One volunteer pointed them out, kindly telling me we were getting Gushers so that W wouldn’t feel different at school.
Which I can sadly relate to, having been the kid with the big ol’ woody carrot for recess snack when the other kids had fruit roll-ups. But what does it say about our society that you need to have Gushers in your lunch to be cool? To be normal?
I needed to cook the perishables first – since the beans and zucchini were so close to self-combusting I turned them into a simple stew with two potatoes and a large can of tomatoes. It reminded me how good plain, unadorned food can be – our rules of engagement allow cooking oil and three spices, so I added a pinch of Italian seasoning (from my friend’s garden), salt and pepper. Had I been doing this on my own I might have added asparagus, garlic and onion, maybe white beans, and possibly a sausage to start. I certainly would have grated some Parmesan cheese overtop. But we enjoyed it nevertheless, and felt good after eating it. It was simple, comforting and nourishing, and amazingly flavourful considering its humble contents. And I just realized – it was vegan, even!
You know what I love about this experience? The reminder that there is really SO MUCH FOOD in the kitchen even when we’re convinced that there’s not a thing in the house to eat. We’re just spoiled. We approach mealtime from a standpoint of what we feel like having, rather than what we have (or what’s in season and available). We pick up food rather than shop from our own cupboards and freezers. I think convenience has less to do with prepared food available at every corner store, and more to do with having the ability to turn a few raw ingredients into a delicious meal.
Zucchini, Green Bean and Potato Stew
canola or olive oil, for cooking
1 onion, chopped (optional)
1 yellow or green zucchini, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, crushed (optional)
1-2 cups fresh green beans, stem ends trimmed
2 potatoes, russet, Yukon gold or red, chopped (don’t bother peeling them)
1 28 oz. (796 mL) can whole tomatoes, undrained
pinch Italian seasoning
salt and pepper
In a medium pot, heat a drizzle of oil over medium-high heat and cook the onion (if you’re using it), zucchini and garlic for about 5 minutes, until soft. Add the green beans, potatoes, tomatoes (with their juices) and Italian seasoning; bring to a simmer, cover and cook for about half an hour, or until the potatoes are tender. Season with salt and pepper and serve immediately.
I know the Calgary Food Bank has become a sort of dumping ground for produce that is unsellable and often on the verge of composting itself. Plenty of companies (generously?) donate what’s garbage to them to the food bank, much of which is on the verge of unusable or already slimy – I’ve seen staff and volunteers out back, sorting through heaps of compost, opening packages to dump out the contents and filter out the plastic packaging. They really don’t need to be spending time and resources sorting through garbage so that whatever is compostable makes it into compost instead of into landfill.
So while we did some eye-rolling over plantains and mushrooms and expired coleslaw (which is dated May 25th, but it was just fine) I’m glad that some of this is being used – clearly plenty of it is perfectly edible, despite its poor aesthetics. We consumers like our produce to be plump and fresh with nary a blemish. I actually like that this food is being used. The Calgary food bank has become a dumping ground of sorts for companies who “donate” product that is past its prime – unsellable to them – with a small window to use before it composts itself.
This all brings to light the subject of food waste. It’s something I’ve wanted to address for awhile – I have plenty to say on the subject, but for now I want to toss it out there for you to comment on. Every month, residents of Toronto toss out 17.5 million kg of food. (I’m sure statistics for Calgary are similar.) About a third of food purchased in the UK is thrown out every year – that translates to about $19.5 billion in Canadian dollars. Part of the problem is best-before and use-by dates on packaging, which isn’t regulated by any governing body and so determined by the manufacturers, most of whom undoubtedly would like to see a faster turnover of their product. Part of the problem is planning, and ease of accessibility, and sheer volume of food we all keep in our kitchens. (Do you know exactly what’s lurking in your fridge?) And buying more instead of using what we have.