What's for dinner at the food bank?

Kevin Yarr

By Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca

Ham and potato scallop, Jamaican rice and peas perhaps?

And a lot of Kraft Dinner.

I went to visit the food bank in Charlottetown the other day. I've often been on the giving end, but never hung around to see where those donations end up. Manager Mike MacDonald was happy to show me around.

It's a small building. With a food drive on, it's starting to fill up with cans and boxes this time of year. In late summer, there is a lot of fresh produce donated: some from farmers, some from backyard gardeners.

"You get a lot of zucchini. Usually the clients are sick of them by the time they're done. We're pushing [the zucchini] on them pretty good," said MacDonald.

Five days of food for a family of four, courtesy of the food bank (Kevin Yarr/CBC)

This is one of the hard facts of the food bank: you don't get much in the way of choice. The volunteers pack a box for you once a month and, for the most part, you have to find a way to deal with what's in it. You might get a choice of coffee or tea, and allergies are taken into account, but with just a few volunteers filling boxes for 75 or more clients in a morning, there isn't a lot of time to discuss preferences.

The first hard fact, of course, is that you might have to make a visit at all. MacDonald hears regularly from new clients that they walked past the building three or four times before going in. Workers at the food bank do their best to make people comfortable, but seeing people too much at ease can lead to mixed feelings.

"It's just not right that somebody feels that comfortable coming in," said MacDonald, noting that comfort with the food bank generally only comes with years of practice. There is a sad story behind that comfort.

So, what is for dinner? I had them pack up a box for my family — two adults, a 14- and a seven-year-old — just to see what would be in it.

Currently supplies are good, and they are packing for five days instead of the minimum three.

It's a fairly small box, a banana box I think, but staffers pack quite a load of stuff into it. Much of it is food I would never buy myself, like canned ham or Dream Whip. I'm sure that's a common experience, generating a what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this feeling mixed in with the relief of having some food in the house.

MacDonald said there is little time to help clients with that. A few years ago when zucchini was especially plentiful, they generated a sheet with some recipes on it that was much appreciated.

What could I make with my box? There's a bag of potatoes (this is P.E.I.) — the only fresh produce. Added to the ham, it might become a potato scallop. With a seven-year-old, I might get some milk. Maybe put the canned mushrooms in. I would have to buy my own onions.

My idea for Jamaican rice and peas is a stretch. I have a two-kilogram bag of rice and a can of black-eyed peas. There is thyme growing wild in my front yard, but I don't have any coconut milk. I guess I would have to go with a very bland version.

There's a box of chicken broth, so maybe I could drum up something like a risotto. However, a better description would likely be chicken-flavoured rice, since there's not much else to put in it.

Already my creativity begins to fail me.

There's spaghetti and tomato sauce. There are five boxes of Kraft Dinner, plus a few bags of the sauce mix without the pasta.

Beyond dinner there is a box of cereal, eggs, granola bars and other items for school snacks. Maybe that canned ham will just go to sandwiches.

The box is not devoid of treats. There's two small bags of candy for the kids, smoked mussels and a tiny can of lobster pâté (this is P.E.I.). Perhaps a lobster omelette one night, just for Mum and Dad?

There are other items that are simply frustrating: a taco kit, Shake’n Bake for fish. If I have money for ground beef and fish, am I going to the food bank? MacDonald notes however that if something comes in, it is going to go out. It's not doing anyone any good on their shelves.

What do you think makes a good donation to the food bank?