Monday, December 28, 2009

Pure Pantry

U.S. hunger statistics are too high and growing.  Many Americans, particularly children, suffer from under-nutrition.  This is a condition that results from eating quantities of food low in nutritional value.  At this time of year, many generous people join food drives and drop off extra groceries at their local food shelf and come closer than usual to the problem.  One of the paradoxes of the situation is a rise in obesity and obesity’s related health issues like diabetes and heart disease.  Not simply how much is in the pantry, but what is in the pantry could be a contributing factor.

What’s in your pantry?  If you took an inventory right now, would you find foods that are real?  Or would you find ones with ingredients you don’t recognize?  Many dieters know that if a high-risk food is not in the house, it’s less likely to be consumed.  Apply the same logic to a pure pantry.  If the staples in your pantry are purer, that’s what will end up inside your family.

Many are convinced that eating pure healthy foods is expensive. While it is true that cheap mixes and processed foods rely on inexpensive fillers and artificial flavorings to extend portions, there are plenty of good pantry choices where the maxim “less is more” rules.  The fewer ingredients on the label, the more real food you’ll find inside.  That is a real value.  If you are in the midst of making a donation, consider a rethink of your own pantry too. The advice on selection here is a good way for you to buy for your own pantry.

A random sampling of Food Pantry needs around the country shows some common items in constant need. Many food pantries request your help in keeping their clients healthy and ask for low- and no-salt versions.  When you donate, consider a natural brand or one with the least amount of processing.  The list below provides some of the most requested items and suggestions to help you fill the order with a purer choice.   Regular sizes work best for most pantries, but yours may appreciate larger sizes too—call and ask.

Most requested items:
Canned beans- low sodium is best.  All types are welcome.  This is the top item requested.

Cereal-- most requested: Cocoa Puffs, Mini Wheats, Raisin Bran, Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms.  This is a controversial item since our children are inundated with sugar in so many forms.  Perhaps we should call some of these packaged boxes of fun Sweets instead of Cereal and put them in their rightful spot on the menu: dessert instead of breakfast. Clearly cereal is of the best places to clean up our national food act. Go for low sugar cereal to donate and to feed your family. Sprinkle on a bit of sugar if you crave more.  Taste buds adjust faster than you think and your body will thank you. A word of caution, many manufacturers use several forms of sugar that can be listed separately.  Beware of cereals which appear to have less actual sugar but also have other sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, rice syrup, etc.  Check total grams of sugar to get the real picture.

Pasta and noodle products- manufacturers learned that whole wheat is not this country’s favorite and have developed pastas with softer grains combined with whole wheat ones that taste great.  Introduce them to your own household in baked pasta dishes.

Peanut Butter- Many supermarkets have store brands that are natural.  Look for one with just peanuts and salt.  At the very least, skip ones that have sugar as an ingredient.

Potatoes, instant- Check the label.  Potatoes dehydrate easily and fillers are not necessary though simple preservatives are acceptable.  Fresh mashed potatoes are preferred but many food shelves do not have fresh vegetable facilities.

Rice and rice products- Opt for rice instead of rice products.  Brown rice is inexpensive and delicious cooked with low-salt broth.

Pancake mix- The less is more rule is important here since this is prime territory for fillers.  There are many good tasting multi-grain varieties.

Canned Soup-  Hearty varieties are in demand as well as low- and no-salt.  Low-Sodium broths are healthy on their own and as ingredients in many dishes.  A small amount of salt can be added at the table.  Alternatively, fresh or dried herbs boost and compliment broths replacing salt entirely.  Try adding dried thyme to canned chicken broth for a mid-winter flavor boost.

Canned Vegetables (corn, mushrooms, sweet potatoes, tomatoes)-- The vegetable should be the first ingredient listed.  Avoid brands with added sugars.  Look for brands low in sodium.

Canned Fruit (peaches, pears, oranges)—Look for ones packed in juice, not heavy syrup.  Applesauce tastes great without added sugar. 

Canned or tinned proteins- Tuna and other fish, chicken, meat stews are in high demand.

Canned tomato products—sauces, juice, whole or crushed tomatoes.  Additional ingredients like basil, peppers and onion are OK but shun extra sugars and salt.

Also requested:
Stuffing mix- plain stuffing with a small jar of poultry seasoning is a better bet than pre-packaged mixes.
Condiments (Salsa, Mustard, Ketchup, salt & pepper)Sugar (white, brown, Splenda)
Jelly—look for “all fruit” types rather than true jams and jellies.  Also try apple and pear butters.
Dessert mixes (muffins, cakes, frosting, pie filling, chocolate chips)- all children have birthdays so don’t neglect this category
Baby food
Drink and mixes (lemonade, juice boxes, decaf and regular tea bags & coffee)
Crackers, saltines

Some have facilities for fresh foods (vegetables, fruit, meats).  Call and ask.  Many food stamp and healthy kids nutrition programs still do not cover these items so it is very nice for families to have a source of fresh foods.   Root vegetables like onions and winter squash keep well but your local group may have means to store more perishable goods too.

Non-food items that are in high demand include paper towels, toilet paper, household cleaners, dishwashing liquid and laundry detergent, re-sealable plastic bags and 33-gallon trash bags and diapers.  There are healthy choices for most of these items too.  Non-toxic and natural cleaners and paper goods made with recycled fibers are easier to find and less costly than in years past.

Your generosity and kindness is needed and appreciated as we all relearn how to feed ourselves and our neighbors with both dignity and truly nutritious food. If you’d like to learn more, one of many good sources is the World Food Program’s website.  Information and resources on the site apply to populations both far away and around the corner.