Oddities, End Dates and Some Dirt

The past couple of weeks both food pantries in which I volunteer have gotten large shipments of donated items from the county food bank.  These items are not TEFAP (Federal) or State supplied food.  They are strictly items donated by the general public to the county food bank through canned food drives or individual drop offs.  These sizeable shipments have been filled with many useful and needed items, like cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter.  They have also contained items for clients with health problems or special diets, like low sodium soups, vegetarian items or sugar and fat free items which are good for diabetics.  I have, however, made a couple disappointing observations that I wanted to share.

expiration dateFirst, most food items are now stamped with a sell by or use by date.  The majority of items are donated well before their expiration date, but at both pantries we have encountered items that were expired.  In several instances the items were several years out of date.  Additionally, we encountered severely dented or rusted cans.  Canned goods that were only a few months out of date or are only slightly dented are put on a table or shelf with an explanation as to why they are there, allowing clients to decide whether to take them or not.  Items that are well beyond their expiration date, heavily dented or rusted have to be thrown away.  My suggestion to people who contribute to a food bank or pantry is to look at the sell by date and the condition of the can.  This is especially important if the item is coming out of your pantry.  I know I have been surprised at how old some items are in my own pantry.  If the food item is either out of date or in questionable condition, please do not donate it.

As I mentioned, most of the items donated are useful and needed, but I have seen some very odd items as well.  Some of my favorites include a can of hearts of palm, Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce and tamarind sauce.  All of these items may be quite tasty, but they are not something the average cook, particularly in rural Pennsylvania, is going to know what to do with.  Most foodMOST-NEEDED-FOOD-DONATIONS banks and pantries have a list of items they regularly distribute or for which they have a particular need.  I encourage anyone uncertain about what to donate to contact the local food bank or check their website to get that list of most needed items.  Some items that can always be used are canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and unsweetened cereals.  Please do not think of the local food bank as a place to take unwanted items from your pantry.

 And now about the dirt.  No, the dirt has nothing to do with the donated food from the county food bank.  Today I got to play in the dirt a bit.  One of the food pantries where I volunteer has raised beds in which they grow vegetables to be distributed in the food pantry.  The broccoli broccoli seedlingsseedlings we planed today were supplied by the county food bank.  In addition to the broccoli we planted today, volunteers had already planted onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots.  To augment the vegetables grown in the raised beds, some staff members of the food pantry will plant other vegetables at their homes to be harvested for the pantry.  I love this idea of the pantry growing their own produce and this pantry is fortunate to have the space to do so.  I am excited to think of all the fresh produce that will be available to food pantry clients later this summer.


A Pause for Reflection

The past few months have been a whirlwind.  When I started out on this venture I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I told myself just put one foot in front of the other and take baby steps.  As the weeks have passed, I feel like the baby steps have become an all out gallop just to keep up with the volunteering, reading of articles and informational texts and writing this blog.  Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem of food insecurity and the little dent I am going to be able to make in alleviating hunger.  Most days, however, I am motivated by the people I have encountered along the way and the response I have received to what little I have done so far.

I have been volunteering in two local food pantries for four months now.  Volunteering in these pantries has educated me as to who is receiving emergency food services.  The clients at the food pantries are young and old, male and female, of all races, and live in large households or alone.   In other words they could be anyone, and I suspected as much before I started volunteering.  Iliving wage have also learned, however, that a majority of people who use emergency food services, like a food pantry, live in a household with at least one person in the workforce.   In households where no one is working, it is often because members of the household are senior citizens or disabled.  A disturbing number of Americans are not able to make ends meet even though they are working.  Knowing that fact abstractly is one thing.  Looking a person who is experiencing it in the eyes while helping her fill her food basket makes that fact very concrete.

I have also learned that no matter how hard these emergency food agencies try, gaps and shortfalls exist and will continue to exist when providing emergency food.  When I started volunteering I thought that clients could come in whenever they needed food.  Sometimes that would be every couple of months, but sometimes that might be twice in one month.  This is not how emergency food works.  Clients can only come in once every 30 days, which isn’t too bad.  But here are some other things I have learned.  Sometimes there is a waiting list for closed signappointments two weeks long.  Food pantries are only open a few days a week and sometimes only during the daytime when many people are at work.  Sometimes clients can’t come when the pantry is open.  Or sometimes clients can’t get a ride to the pantry.  If they walk to the pantry they can only take what they can carry home.  Sometimes the food items run low causing rationing, or run out all together.

Not everything I have witnessed from my volunteering experience has been so discouraging though.  I have worked several jobs which involved serving the public and very seldom have I experienced such levels of appreciation from those I have served.  Additionally, I have enjoyed the warm sense of community and commitment I have found among fellow emergency food volunteers.  Providing assistance through emergency food agencies like food banks and pantries is not the answer to the food insecurity problem that I would like to see, but I do feel like through these pantries I am making an important difference in the lives people who need a helping hand and caring face.  For now, that feeling sustains me, but also pushes me to keep striving for a better solution.

stronger together

Similarly, I have been encouraged by the response to this blog.  In the two and a half months that I have been writing posts, the number of people following the blog has risen to over 190 people.  I have received very positive verbal feedback from several people as well as have had many posts be “liked” by fellow bloggers.  Additionally, I have started to receive some comments on my posts and am beginning to see the formation of the online community I hope to foster.  In that spirit, I would love to see the number of followers of this blog top 200 by the end of April.  If you know someone who is interested in this topic, or even remotely related topics, like cooking or farming, please share this blog with them.  Finally, I encourage you to participate in the conversation.  Leave me a comment, share an insight, point me in a new direction!

On the Brighter Side

bns and greensI just looked back over my posts so far, and while I am proud of what I read, the overall tone is a bit depressing.  Perhaps not surprising given the topic, but I also want to keep readers hopeful by reporting on successes and positive outcomes.  I have “liked” my county’s food bank on Facebook, and recently I have gotten a couple of posts from them on my news feed that have made me smile.  Today I will pass their upbeat posts on to you.  The food bank reported that in the past few weeks volunteers have peeled, cut and bagged 15,000 lbs. of butternut squash.  I love butternut squash and am excited to see so much of it being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  They additionally released the amount of venison they received this year from Hunters Sharing the Harvest–3,000 lbs.  As someone who regularly dodges deer as they dash across the road, I am glad this successful program is in place.  Finally, on this St. Patrick’s Day, the food bank posted that the spring greens have been planted in their local greenhouses!  I look forward to seeing those greens as they are distributed to the food pantries in the coming months.

family cooking

I am very encouraged and pleased fresh produce and unprocessed meat is being offered in our local food bank and pantries.  I will explain why over the next few weeks as I publish a series of posts about cooking.  This series will be at least three parts.  I will be discussing the decline in cooking in the United States, and by cooking I mean from scratch.  I also will explain why I think it is important to cook from scratch whenever possible and how cooking from scratch is beneficial to those experiencing food insecurity.  Finally, I will address how I think the decline in cooking is often unintentionally aided by food banks and pantries and propose some ideas they can use to combat this decline.

This series will take a bit of research and careful thought, so stay tuned over the next couple of weeks as I formulate and publish these related posts.  While I always welcome comments, this topic is one area where I really want to hear what others think.  I realize there will be some challenges and hurdles to overcome in what I am proposing, so I need help in looking at the topic from several points of view.   In the meantime, find some time to dust off some of your favorite recipes or find some new ones and cook something!

America’s New National Pastime


No, I don’t mean baseball!  I have just started reading a book entitled Sweet Charity?:  Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, by Janet charity bookPoppendieck.  In this book she contends that so many Americans participate in the fight to end hunger by donating to or volunteering in soup kitchens or food banks and pantries that it has become a national pastime.  Poppendieck chronicles the increased reliance on charity as a response to poverty and hunger in the United States, while noting the erosion of government provided assistance.  She contends that this resurgence in charity is a Band-Aid approach to ending poverty and hunger and is not the positive force it appears to be at first glance.

Her argument is two-fold.  First she states that America soundly rejected this form of poverty remediation over half a century ago.  Private charitable organizations, Poppendieck suggests, are inefficient and vary from location to location in the amount of assistance they provide.  She further states that serving meals and distributing groceries is inadequate assistance and serves to separate and segregate those in poverty from the rest of society.

The second point in Poppendieck’s argument is that participating in a charitable response to hunger and poverty diverts our attention from an actual solution to poverty in America.  Volunteering in and donating to charitable food distribution organizations, she contends, makes many Americans feel good and gives them a sense that the hunger problem is being addressed.  Poppendieck suggests that all this goodwill Americans feel prevents us from working to implement national policies with the goal of truly ending poverty and hunger in America.

As someone who has just committed a large amount of my time to volunteering in food pantries and working to fill some of the gaps that exist in assisting the food insecure, I was taken aback by the notion that I might be doing more harm than good.  I am, however, intrigued by what she has to say.  I have a feeling in the end we will not be too far apart on our assessment of the situation and what needs to occur to eliminate food insecurity in the United States.  That said, I do think this book will at times challenge my beliefs and opinions.

I think it is healthy to challenge the beliefs we hold, be they religious, political, or philosophical.  Part of the problem we face in the United States today stems from the fact that people surround themselves with information and people that reinforce their belief structure.  But that is a whole other discussion and one I don’t plan to undertake on this blog.   As I stated, I have just started reading the book, but I will share with you my thoughts on the topic and the book when I am done.  I am curious to see how or if it will alter the course of my journey to assist the food insecure.

I would be interested in your initial response to Poppendieck’s premise, or if you have read the book, what you thought about it.

Homeless in Winter

freezing thermometerIn the past week in southeastern Pennsylvania it has snowed twice, once with a topping of freezing rain and sleet.  Last Friday morning the temperature with the wind chill was between -10 and -15 degrees.  The coldest weather this area has seen in 50+ years.  This morning it was 1 degree without the wind chill.  When people meet in public the topic is how cold it is and how ready everyone is for Spring to get here.

This morning at the food pantry I met Bill (not his real name).  He is ready for Spring to come too.  Bill is homeless and lives in a tent.  He knows exactly how cold it has been and what type of precipitation has been falling from the sky.  Twice his tent has collapsed on him from the weight of the snow.  He has a kerosene heater, but no kerosene.  Bill keeps warm with and cooks over an open fire.  He has been given permission to “camp” within the patrolled area of a local food manufacturer’s property because his tent has been burglarized more than once.  What little money he has, Bill makes from selling firewood, otherwise he has no income.  He cleans a friend’s home in exchange for her driving him places and allowing him to store items, like eggs, in her refrigerator.

His homeless situation presented us with challenges in gathering his food.  First we had to make sure he had gotten a ride, which he luckily had.  Otherwise he could only take what he could carry.  The other volunteer working with me today knew of Bill’s situation, so she knew he could only have cans and only ones with a pop tops.  He needs cans because he can put them right in his fire to warm them and pop tops because his can opener has been stolen twice.  The extreme temperatures make keeping liquids problematic for him.  He does have a cooler but he said the water he had, had frozen solid the other day even in the cooler.  In spite of these challenges, we were able to send Bill on his way with several items.

D2D-PIT-CallOut-2014According to a Point-in-Time count conducted on January 29, 2014, 684  people were experiencing homelessness on that night here in Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county.  Point-in-Time counts are used to help determine how many people are experiencing homeless on any given night in an area.  This figure includes those in emergency shelters, transitional housing, receiving motel subsidies and, like Bill, unsheltered.  Even if Bill had wanted to come in out of the cold, there are no shelters in our corner of this county.  The nearest ones are 25-30 miles away.

I would have not been surprised if Bill had been bitter or angry, but he was not.  He said he had too much to do to think about being cold, but he lingered with us as long as he could.  It is forecast to be below average in temperature for at least the next week.  Tonight, as I get into my bed with flannel sheets and three blankets, I will think about Bill and hope that he is okay.  At least I know he won’t be hungry.

What’s in the pantry?

In 1980 200 food banks existed in the entire United States.  Today there are over 40,000 food banks, pantries and soup kitchens.  With all the recent cuts in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly called the Food Stamp Program) food banks are doing the heavy lifting in ensuring those who are hungry get the food they need.  Food banks were once considered a place to turn in an emergency, for a little while.  Now they are a necessity to many.  So how do food banks work?

Individual food banks are often networked together with other food banks and coordinated at the county or state level.  State and Federal resources are then funneled from the parent organization to each food pantry in the network.  The individual food banks serve local areas often defined by a local government jurisdiction or school district boundaries.  They have set hours each week when clients can come get their food.  Clients are allowed to come once a month to receive a full allotment of groceries, but often the pantry will allow clients to come weekly to get donated bread/baked goods and perishable items like fresh produce when available.

Most of the food at food banks comes not from donations, but from State and Federal food distribution programs.  The Federal program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP), provides USDA purchased commodities and has been in existence since 1981.  The State Food Purchase Program supplements TEFAP by providing funds to food agencies.  These agencies buy food in bulk and then distribute it to the food banks in their network.  These two programs provide the majority of food distributed by food pantries.

food driveFood banks and pantries, however,  receive food other ways.  Who hasn’t given a donation to a local organization sponsoring a food drive.  I have sent food in to my kids’ schools and every year a Boy Scout troop distributes empty bags in our neighborhood one week and comes back to collect the filled bags the next week.  Right now (not long after the winter holidays) one food pantry in which I volunteer is still sorting through boxes of food donated during the holidays.

breadBoth of the food pantries I am familiar with get large weekly donations of bread/bakery products.  A staff member at one pantry goes to a local grocery store and takes all the bakery items the store can no longer sell and was going to throw away.  The other pantry has a volunteer who picks up similarly expired bread products from a local chain restaurant that specializes in sandwiches.  In both pantries these items are frozen to be distributed to clients through the week.

produceFood banks and pantries have learned to capitalize on what is unique or abundant in their area.  For instance here in rural Pennsylvania, we have many farmers.  In the summer when produce is plentiful, sometimes too plentiful (zucchini again?!) farmers can donate their extra produce to the food bank.  In addition to taking donations of produce, the main county food bank has partnered with local farmers who grow produce for the county food bank network.  That produce is then distributed to the food banks in the network who are able to take it.  Additionally, food pantries that have the land available grow their own produce in garden plots and/or raised beds.

Finally, living in rural Pennsylvania there are many hunters and many more deer.  Our county food bank participates in a statewide program called Hunters Sharing the Harvest.  Hunters can donate their deer to a participating butcher for processing.  The food bank picks up the processed venison and distributes it to the participating local pantries.  I think this is a  great win win situation–hunters are helping those in need and controlling the deer population.


Here are some links to websites I found helpful and informative

I encourage you to take a look at what is happening in your area.  Is there a way you can help?  Often food banks have a list of items most needed.  Next time you donate to a food drive, find out what is most needed.  I’d love to hear of any innovative programs offered by other food banks.



food pantryFor the past month, weather permitting, I have been volunteering in two local food pantries.  They serve our area and are part of the larger county food bank network.  The setting for each pantry is different.  One is affiliated with a church and the food pantry is the only service provided at that building.  It is also on the outskirts of town, so most clients arrive in a car.  The other is located in a building that houses other social services.  It is located in town and many clients walk to the pantry.

Each of the food pantries has its own mix of clientele, but all walks of life are represented.  There are large families, usually multiple generations living in one house and clients who live alone.  There are children and senior citizens.  There are Hispanics, Caucasians, and African Americans.  There are those who are disabled and the able bodied.  In many households someone is suffering from an ailment, sometimes something chronic like diabetes, sometimes just a virus or the flu.  Except for those with disabilities or who have retired, at least one person in most households was employed.  Those who were unemployed were looking.  One client even asked me if I knew anybody who was hiring.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

My primary task is to assist clients with getting their food.  The food in each pantry is similar, often identical, because most of it comes from the same agencies.  The differences that exist are due to what each pantry orders to serve its unique clientele and the donated items it receives.  There are guidelines about what and how much clients can take, but clients also have some input in what they receive.  More often than I expected they do not take all to which they are entitled.  Most only take what they need right then.  Additionally, several clients I encountered came only when they were truly running short on food.  In other words, they do not make appointments to come when they do not need the extra assistance, even though they would still qualify to receive that assistance.

Many of the clients initially seemed wary of me, probably because I am a new face.  I imagine being there is not easy for them.  One of the other volunteers told me that when clients sign up to use the food pantry, particularly for the first time ever, they always cry.  I try to do whatever I can to put them at ease.  I look them directly in the eye and smile.  I make small talk, no talk or offer a handshake.  I try to catch their name so I can address them properly.

The manner in which I complete my tasks at each of these two food pantries has been different, due to the constraints of each location.  What has not been different is what I take away each time I have volunteered.  I always feel that warm feeling you get in your heart when you help someone else, but there is more.  I also feel inspired by the manner in which these individuals meet the adversities in their lives. With each encounter I have I learn more about the reasons people find themselves at a food pantry.  Consequently, I find myself more committed than ever to this endeavor.

Jumping in with both feet

I have done it!  Over the past couple of years it has become increasingly important to me to find time in my life to become involved in efforts to assist those experiencing food insecurity, particularly in my own community.  So I said good bye to my job and reorganized some of my household responsibilities to find the time to pursue this endeavor.

I started by doing a bit of research on the topic of food insecurity in America.  While I wanted to understand the problem nationally, I wanted to focus my help locally.  I looked around in my own community to determine what assistance was available for those without enough food.  I discovered two food pantries and I have contacted them about volunteering my time.  In addition to helping immediately by volunteering with existing programs, I want understand where gaps in the assistance that is currently provided exist and propose solutions to fill some of those gaps.

To assist with that goal I have started this blog.  With this blog I hope to connect with others who are similarly concerned about food insecurity.  These folks might be running a program helping people get the food they need.  Maybe they, themselves are experiencing food insecurity or know someone who is.  Or maybe, like me, they are just someone who has reached the boiling point and said enough.

In addition to a chronicle of my experiences, I hope this blog will become an exchange of ideas.  A place where others can offer suggestions and insight.  I want to know what has been successful as well as what didn’t succeed and why.  I welcome all points of view as long as they are presented respectfully.  If you have made it this far and you are still reading, I hope you will join me.  I believe that when people work collectively, great things are possible.