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If you were considering getting involved with your local food bank, now may be the time.
Washington, D.C. is negotiating last year’s Farm Bill, which encompasses various farming-related regulations and the federal food stamp program. Last November, a $5 billion cut to the program resulted in the average family of four losing $36 in food stamps benefits monthly—which may not sound like a lot, but it’s the equivalent of 23 meals per month.
Chefs such as Tom Colicchio have publicly complained about the cuts contained in this bill, which are reported to amount to around 9 billion dollars over the next decade. The immediate impact is obvious: fewer people will be able to count on government help in order to eat. And when food stamps take a hit, food banks—places that store and distribute food to the hungry—are socked with an even greater demand.
We asked representatives of three food banks around the country what the average American can do to help.
Mike Kantor of Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans told us, “I will always start this conversation with: the absolute best thing to donate is money. Because of our connections [in the food and restaurant industries], we can turn a $10 donation into 28 meals.” And of course, you can always volunteer. But if you don’t have cash or time to spare, and you want to donate actual food to your local food bank, “we don’t turn anything away,” said Kantor.
It’s a sentiment echoed by reps we spoke to in Texas and Mississippi. Karolyn Davis of East Texas Food Bank said, “I can’t think of anything we get that we think, ‘Oh, no, we can’t take that.’”
When asked whether food banks were flooded with rarely-used pantry items like tomato paste or tomato soup, Marilyn Blackledge of the Mississippi Food Network reminded us that even those seemingly less pragmatic goods have their uses: “The standard things are tomato sauce, green beans, corn, but you can always take those things and make a big pot of homemade soup.” True!
When asked, however, each spokesperson revealed that certain nonperishables are on the “dream list,” because they’re either easy-to-prepare, high in protein, or nutritious. Here they are, in order of how frequency they were mentioned.
Peanut Butter: Who knew peanut butter would top the dream list? But it makes sense: “Kids love it, it’s high in protein and it’s relatively nutritious,” said Kantor. “Because it comes in a bottle, it’s shelf-stable and it’s very easy to distribute.” In Texas, Davis told us, a local hospital holds a drive exclusively for peanut butter.
Canned Tuna: Proteins are something “we don’t get as much of,” said Blackledge. It’s a bit more expensive than other options, but it’s fairly healthy and highly prized at the food bank.
Canned Chicken: By the same reasoning, canned chicken is treated like gold, and made the lists of all three food bank reps.
Canned Ravioli in Sauce: "Keep in mind that there are folks that don’t have access to spaces to cook," says Kantor. Canned ravioli is “easy to prepare for folks who don’t have a whole kitchen space."
Jelly: When all else fails, kids will typically eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
100% Fruit Juice: “We have a lot of soda, and frankly we’d much prefer to get a lot of bottled juices,” says Kantor. “One hundred percent juice is certainly the best option available.”
Canned Fruits and Vegetables: Many of us are under the impression that fresh fruits and vegetables are always healthier, but recent studies have disputed that, as long as the fruits are “free of added salt and sugar.” Fruits, even those “packed in a light syrup,” are always welcome at the Mississippi food bank, said Blackledge.
Canned Beans and Rice: Somehow it didn’t surprise us that these were popular in New Orleans, where beans and rice are very much part of the everyday diet.
Boxed Mac ‘n’ Cheese: Another almost-always hit for hungry kids, mac ‘n cheese made Blackledge’s dream list.
So if you’re planning that canned food drive, do it! And maybe encourage your friends to bring any of the above—in addition to that tomato soup.