Early Wednesday morning, we drove two towns up the freeway to visit the local food bank. It turned out to be a giant warehouse, staffed by a volunteer crew of senior citizen ladies. One of them seemed to be supervising the woman driving the forklift, moving pallets in, out and all about. The rest of them appeared to be standing around doing nothing.
Although we had received some food from a local church earlier in the week, clients are only permitted to visit once a month. However, the grapefruit, bread and two bags of canned goods clearly won’t last the three of us for a whole month. And, to be honest, what we were really hoping for was a bag of potatoes.
Well, we struck out on the potatoes. In fact, the food bank did not give us any food at all. What they did provide us with, however, was even more valuable: Information on the locations and times of local food distributions.
I had called in advance and was told that I’d need to bring three bills, preferably utility bills, displaying my name and address. This is required as proof that we maintain a permanent residence in one of the counties that the food bank serves.
As simple as this request seems, it turned out to be a big headache for us. For one thing, we live in the parsonage of a church and don’t have our own utility bills. For another, the post office does not deliver mail to our door; the church rents out a post office box. Thus, any bills we can show the food bank will list our P.O. box number, not our physical address. We could live anywhere, for all they know.
My very resourceful wife dove into our files and dug out a notice from the State of California informing me that I had exhausted my unemployment benefits and that I am out of luck, Chuck. We also brought our car insurance bill and a printed pharmacy receipt for one of my prescriptions. I crossed my fingers.
Driving around to the back of the warehouse and dodging the forklift’s crazy zigzag through the parking lot, I ducked into the office. The bored clerk at the desk seemed to be examining her fingernails. I explained about being unemployed for eight months, having zero luck finding a job and running out of unemployment benefits. She, in turn, explained that, despite having food stacked up to the roof of the warehouse, none of it is distributed onsite to hungry people. They provide food to charitable organizations only.
She sent me next door to sit in a meeting room and wait for an eligibility interview. There were two clients ahead of me: A white woman in a wheelchair with an oxygen tank mounted on the back and a black woman who appeared to be her friend. Like me, both of them were grossly obese. I find it ironic that, these days, we fat people are the ones who end up begging for food. Some days I think that God must have a warped sense of humor.
When it was my turn, I stepped into a tiny office, where I introduced myself to the intake worker. Barbara appeared to be older than my mother, who recently turned eighty. I told my story again and presented my documents for examination. In addition to being knowledgeable, Barbara is one of the kindest people you could ever hope to meet. She explained that a post office box address is not a substitute for a physical address. When I described our situation, however, she agreed to accept the documents even though doing so constituted bending the rules more than a little.
Barbara made copies of all my documents and of my driver’s license. Noting the birthdate on my license, she told me that her son was born the day after I was. “Your mother and I were doing the same thing that day!” she gleefully observed.
She handed me a mimeographed calendar for the month, filling in the date squares by hand with the locations of food distributions in my area. I then took the page from her and began making notes in the margin as I asked her questions about how to get to these places and what time I needed to show up. As she was out of eligibility cards, she kindly wrote my eligibility information on a small piece of note paper and initialed it so that I would have something to show on food distribution days.
This morning, we attended our first public sector food distribution in the parking lot of the local welfare/social services office. We arrived about 40 minutes early, assuming that many people would be lined up to obtain food prior to the weekend. As needy folks ambled in, they stood around chatting or leaning on their vehicles, waiting for the food boxes to arrive. Soon enough, a truck pulled up bearing the logo of the very food bank we had visited two days ago. The line shuffled forward to a sign-in table set up in the parking lot. When I reached the table, the woman sitting behind it told me to print and sign my name and list my physical address on the sign-in sheet. That was all. No documentation needed, no ID, no anything. I then stepped up to the truck, from whence the delivery guy handed me down a 25 pound box of food. I thanked him, and he informed me that they would be back with more food boxes in two weeks.
As each person approached the truck, she (or he, although I think there was only one other man in line) was asked how many people were in her family. If the answer was anywhere from one to four, the guy handed down one food box and reminded the recipient to carry it low, using the handles, to avoid back injuries. Two women who were there together told the guy that they had ten people in their family. They received three food boxes. I heard another customer waiting in line telling her friend that the family of ten included the recipient’s own four children plus four homeless kids who she had taken into her home. I felt even more humbled that I already was.
Breaking down the food box at home, we found three bags of dry beans, three bags of rice and two boxes of spaghetti, along with cans of soup (chicken noodle and vegetable beef), tomato sauce, vegetables (whole tomatoes, green beans, kernel corn) and applesauce.
I expressed my excitement at having a pot of beans again this week. My wife doesn’t eat beans, but Pastor Mom does. An ongoing issue is that there are very few foods that the three of us will all eat. When Pastor Mom worked her bean magic (onions and garlic appear to be important to this process) this week, I think she only had a single serving herself. My wife doesn’t like leftovers, but I do, and I made four meals of the pot of beans. I ate them hot the first day, cold the second day and as bean burritos (with the addition of jalapeños and vegan “cheese”) the third and fourth days.
I am learning to eat what we have. This is a big change for me, as I am used to engaging in all sorts of wasteful food behavior such as eating what I like best and leaving other things to rot, padding the grocery list with my favorite items even though we have plenty of other stuff in the pantry, and replacing items I enjoy as soon as they run out, before they run out, or even when a thought enters my head that they could possibly run out in the next month or so. It was not unusual for me to tick off my wife royally by starting a new grocery list the minute we got home from the supermarket. Those days are gone for us, and, quite frankly, I feel stupid for ever having participated in this type of nonsense.
One thing we are learning is that there are some essentials that are not available through food distribution programs. Even making efficient use of the supplies of rice, beans, pasta and canned veggies that we receive, we still need to purchase items such as fresh vegetables and fruit, milk and bread. We are learning to live with less fresh produce and to make better use of the canned stuff that we had formerly eschewed. We still have to buy two types of milk, almond milk for me and 2% milk for the others. I must somewhat sheepishly admit that I have figured out that I can do without the almond milk. I don’t need it for protein, as I get plenty of that from beans and from our periodic purchases of tofu, vegan cheese, Boca burgers, TVP deli slices, etc. I use almond or soy milk in my hot tea, but honestly, it’s over a hundred degrees almost every day now and I’m mostly drinking iced tea. If we don’t use the almond milk for cooking (mashed potatoes, for example), the only thing I really need it for is breakfast cereal. As long as I stay away from cereal, it is an expensive purchase that we can easily avoid.
As for bread, I predicted that the food distribution programs would provide us with white bread (which is what my wife and Pastor Mom like) and that we would still have to buy the much more expensive vegan whole grain bread for myself. The complete opposite turned out to be true. I have an entire loaf of vegan seed bread (from Mother Hubbard’s Cupboard) sitting in our freezer so that it does not rot. I figure that I can take two slices at a time directly from the freezer to the toaster. What we end up having to buy is fresh white bread for everyone else in the house. We actually go through bread rather quickly here, as we are always making sandwiches for my niece, my nephews, their friends and local homeless people. We feel blessed to be able to do this.
The plan I am working on for now involves doing my best to include both protein and starch in each meal, along with vegetables as often as possible. In this way, it seems quite reasonable to maintain my vegan diet on a very limited budget and a lot of donated canned goods. And yes, I have it in the back of my mind that I may have to give up my vegan ways if I remain unemployed several months down the road. As I mentioned, we need to eat what we have. Nevertheless, I plan to keep my vegan diet going for as long as I am able.
As an example, this is how my meals panned out today:
Breakfast: Grapefruit, toast with vegan “cream cheese,” ½ peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The grapefruit was given to us; the vegan cream cheese is a very occasional purchase that I consider a treat. Plenty of protein from the cheese and peanut butter.
Lunch: “Cantina potato.” This dish is named for a baked potato dish that I enjoyed at the Grand Sierra Resort’s Mexican restaurant when I played in a regional Scrabble tournament in Reno three years ago. Although their version included a lot of cheese (I hadn’t yet gone vegan then), my version is “kitchen sink” style, i.e., I throw in whatever we have available. The basic recipe involves baking two or three small to medium potatoes (seven to nine minutes in the microwave), seasoning them liberally with black pepper and garlic, and then throwing all manner of junk on top of them. Today, I used garbanzos and two veggie burger patties (my protein) along with a can of carrots and some salsa verde out of a jar. This is a very filling and satisfying meal.
Dinner: Casserole (see photo above). Again, I rummaged through our cupboards for likely looking canned items. The recipe changes every time, but this is how I prepared it tonight:
1 can tomatoes (keep half the liquid)
1 can red kidney beans (or any kind of beans), drained
1 can kernel corn, drained
¼ of a small onion, chopped
½ cup vegan Monterey jack style “cheese”, diced or shredded
6 slices canned jalapeños (optional)
garlic powder and Italian seasoning to taste
I recommend sautéing the chopped onion with some garlic in olive oil before adding to this recipe, but I am a lazy so-and-so and used it raw. I liked the crunch it provided.
If you use whole canned tomatoes (as I did), I recommend cutting them into quarters.
The jalapeños are not at all necessary, but I like the robust, spicy flavor they lend to this otherwise rather bland dish.
Of course, if you’re not vegan, you can use any kind of soft cheese in this recipe. I only used half a cup because the vegan stuff is danged expensive. Feel free to use more for a cheesier experience.
Place the tomatoes with half the liquid in a microwave-safe dish. Season with garlic and Italian seasoning. Add the onion, the beans and the jalapeños, if used. Add the corn last, then sprinkle the cheese on top and season with more garlic and Italian seasoning. Bake in microwave for 3 to 4½ minutes, depending on your wattage. When the cheese melts, the dish is done.
The beans and cheese provide your protein, the corn adds a starch, and the tomatoes contribute a vegetable to your daily total.
When this dish comes out of the microwave, it smells like a pizza in Mexico. Yep, those jalapeños were plenty hot.