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Food pantry project gives insight into hunger

Addie Broyles
abroyles@statesman.com

Think you know what hunger looks like?

Every week in Central Texas, 48,000 people get food from one of the agencies served by the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas, and millions of Americans receive food benefits in the form of food stamps or the Women, Infants and Children program.

When I was pregnant with my first child, I was one of them.

Because I was only employed part time at the newspaper and my partner didn't have much freelance work at the time, our income level was just below the cut-off point to receive vouchers for things like milk, cheese, juice, cereal, peanut butter, eggs and cans of tuna from WIC.

Growing up, my family hadn't ever had to rely on food stamps, but I wasn't too proud to research my options and apply for benefits when I found out we were having a child.

I ended up working full time later in my pregnancy, but in the few months that I was among the millions of Americans enrolled in WIC, I learned a lot about a situation that for many isn't temporary.

To help raise awareness of hunger and food insecurity in all its forms, local food bloggers have been cooking and eating from a typical food pantry offering for the past week. This Hunger Awareness Project hasn't just shown creative ways to live off basic staples such as potatoes, rice, beans and canned fruit — tips that anyone cooking on a budget can relate to — but it has allowed bloggers, including me, to explore how organizations like the Capital Area Food Bank help those in need and tell their own stories of providing nourishment with very little money or ingredients.

Like many who rely on food assistance at one time or another, I found one of the biggest benefits of WIC to be the education classes on breastfeeding and basic infant care. During a tour of the Capital Area Food Bank last week, the bloggers participating in the project found out the other ways the organization helps people in need.

Lisa Goddard, online marketing manager, showed off the square-foot garden beds that are used to teach partner agencies how to teach their clients how to grow some of their own food. Goddard said the organization provides nutrition information and budgeting tools for partner agencies and clients, as well as assistance navigating the tricky food stamp application process. The Capital Area Food Bank also teaches clients how they can use their food stamp and WIC benefits to buy local produce and meat at area farmers markets, including the three large markets run by the Sustainable Food Center.

But the bulk of the tour last week was in the large warehouse in which volunteers and staff inspected, sorted and distributed 23 million pounds of food. That food goes to 350 partner agencies, which includes food pantries, soup kitchens, after-school programs and programs for elderly people, Boys and Girls Clubs and health outreach organizations, which are facing a 60 percent increase in demand from a year ago because of the economy and unemployment rate.

Who are these people? Goddard says that some people wait until the pantry shelves are completely bare before asking for help, and others know that at a certain time of the month, they will need a little boost to make it through until the rent and child-care checks clear. For some, unexpected medical emergencies leave them shorthanded, and for others, it happens when additional families members move into an already strapped household.

More than 40 percent of people served by the Capital Area Food Bank of Texas are children, and almost half of their clients have at least one working adult at home.

Making a list

To get started on this project, I bought $36 worth of rice, beans, pasta, canned corn and green beans, spaghetti sauce, oatmeal, store-brand cereal, potatoes, Tuna Helper, a chicken, ground beef, juice and canned fruit. This list was based on what a food pantry in Pflugerville would give to a family once a month.

Bloggers also supplemented with the amount of money that would be allotted to them if they were enrolled in food stamps or the Women, Infants and Children program.

One of the biggest challenges of cooking on a budget is coming up with new ways to use the same old ingredients, and as soon as I saw the list of food for this Hunger Awareness Project, my wheels started spinning about how to use the ingredients so that we wouldn't get bored by Day Two.

It's not just about being bored, though. When you don't look forward to meals, your morale drops. I imagine being down and out, perhaps looking for a job or even trying to make a special dinner when there's no money for going out to eat, and looking at a whole chicken and a bag of rice with no hope of having more than, well, chicken and rice.

In fact, on the very first night of this challenge last week, roasted chicken, rice and canned green beans is exactly what we ate. It was a simple meal but a delicious way to kick off the week.

With the leftover chicken, I could have made chicken and dumpling stew, but I wanted to use up a few cans of coconut milk that had been collecting dust in my pantry over the past few months.

Mark Bittman's "How to Cook Everything" is one of my all-time favorite cookbooks because the recipes don't require many ingredients and are highly adaptable. I found one for a chicken soup with coconut milk and rice, so I added canned green beans and corn, powdered ginger, a few sprigs of cilantro from my garden and other spices to create a soup that if you closed your eyes and used your imagination tasted almost Thai.

But the real winners were the samosas I made using potatoes and a tortillas that I bought with my food stamp allowance. While I microwaved the potatoes, skin on, for 10 minutes to soften them, I sautéed chopped onions, turmeric, garlic, coriander seeds and cumin. Once the potatoes were soft, I mashed them up with the spice mixture.

Instead of making samosa dough from scratch, I just cut a tortilla in half and placed a small amount of potato in the center, folding the two corners on top of each other and sealing the edges with water and a firm pinch. In a hot pan with about an inch of vegetable oil, I fried the samosas for a few minutes and then served them with the soup.

Both meals were hearty and enjoyable to eat even though they used many of the same ingredients. Just goes to show that basic ingredients are just that: a base for whatever your imagination can conjure up.

Breakfast bargains

Old-fashioned rolled oats are one of my favorite pantry staples, food pantry project or not. Of course, oats are essential for many cookies and streusel toppings, but I've always been a fan of them for breakfast.

I have no love for quick oats (rolled oats that are just chopped into pieces to cook faster), which just taste like mush or, if you're using the little flavored instant packets, ridiculously sweet mush.

Not only are old-fashioned oats cheap, full of fiber and good for lowering your cholesterol, they are easy and quick to cook. I just throw a couple of handfuls of oats in a bowl, cover them with milk and microwave for three minutes. (You can cook for a few minutes longer, but I like mine with texture.) Add a few raisins, nuts and a sprinkle of brown sugar, and you have a hearty breakfast that those "instant" maple syrup apple cinnamon oatmeal packets can't quite rival.

The only other breakfast item on the food pantry list was toasted oats cereal. I stuck with the bagged store brand when I stocked up for this challenge, and I'm happy to report that the honey nut toasted oats in a bag are a fine (and much cheaper) substitute for the name-brand cereal. In fact, I have a feeling I'll be buying a lot more of these bagged toasted oats long after this project is over.

Helping hands

In the 40 years since its invention, Hamburger Helper has spawned an entire grocery store aisle of "ready-made dinners."

When I was young, having dinner made from a boxed meal like this almost seemed like a treat. (Probably because that's how the commercials pitched it to an impressionable kid during breaks in "Saved By The Bell.")

As an adult, I'll occasionally buy the flavored pasta in a bag for my husband, but in general, we get by just fine without a "Helper" in the kitchen. But for this Hunger Awareness Project, I bought a box of Tuna Helper last week, which Ian turned into dinner one night when it was just him and the kid.

This meant that, lucky me, I got to eat leftover Tuna Helper for lunch the next day. I don't recommend this.

But hey, it was food, I was hungry and I needed a reminder: Eating on a budget ain't always pretty.

abroyles@statesman.com; 912-2504