Monday, January 28, 2013

Making do on a tight budget (food pantries)

Today is a kitchen day. What is a kitchen day, you ask? Well, a kitchen day is a day where I spend at least five hours working in my kitchen. Today, however, is a slightly different day because instead of my normal cooking, baking, and processing, I won't know what I'm going to be working with until we get the food home from the food pantries.

Food pantries are a wonderful resource for those on a limited budget with hungry mouths to feed. They take in food that stores, restaurants, and farms that would normally be thrown away, and distribute it to those in need. The problem, though, is that most of the food is about to expire or already did. So every time we have a food pantry day, I have to do a ton of work sorting out what can and cannot be used.

First and foremost, the meat. All meat needs to be inspected for signs of damage, rot, or other things that would make it unusable. Oddly, almost all the meat I get from food pantries show signs of freezer burn, which means I need to thaw it and cook it immediately if it's going to be of any use.

So right now I have three pounds of corned beef in the crock pot, ten pounds of chicken legs and thighs in the oven roasting, three steaks thawing in the fridge (yeah, steaks - not your usual food pantry offering but I'm NOT complaining), and five pounds of sausage patties. My plan is to cook and shred the chicken, which can then be frozen in such a way to avoid freezer burn and used for multiple meals over the next several days. Ditto with the corned beef - what doesn't get eaten tonight will be leftovers for another day. The sausage patties look good so those went into the freezer. The skin and bones left over from roasting the chicken will be used to make stock.

I always ask for fresh produce. Food pantries get a lot of produce donations and most people don't want it, so when I make it clear that I do, indeed, use fresh produce regularly, I tend to get bombarded with the stuff! Sadly, about half of it is unusable. Example? I got about five bell peppers that are dried up and wrinkled, with a faint smell of rot emanating from the stems. Yeah, I'm not going to use those. Ditto with the rusted lettuce and the brown ends of the green onions - though the bulbs and lower stems are still edible.

There are always a ton of processed things like mock maple syrup, pancake mix, boxed mixes (like Jiffy mix) that I can't eat because it flares up my fibro. All those things get put in a box to be taken to my neighbor D. Her family loves those things - and in return she gives me stuff she gets from the pantry that her family won't touch, like gouda and other high-end items (again, no complaints here). It seems to me like an odd unbalanced system because I end up getting all the good stuff, but D feels the same way about her trade, so it works out.

One of the biggest contributors to food pantries are bakeries, and thus we always get more bread than we could possibly use. Wheat bread, white bread, fancy baguettes, doughnuts, brownies, cookies galore - usually all a day or two past their use-by date. Still edible, and when the bread gets older I can make bread pudding. Either way, it's always nice to be able to take a break from breadmaking for a couple days.

Lastly, candy. You would be shocked at how much candy they give out at food pantries! Just from the one pantry we went to this morning, we got enough candy to fill our largest mixing bowl to overflowing - everything from Oreos and candy bars to Easter peeps and bubble gum. Those items get handed out in small amounts over the month, so they last.

All this is from one pantry. We have another one to visit tonight...and the whole process starts over again. I feel blessed that this is an option for struggling families in our area!

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