‘Tis the season for generosity and caring for our neighbors. Food pantries are no longer a short term solution for people to get through a tough time. Families and individuals return week after week as paychecks fall short of putting a nutritious meal on the table. We can all help by donating to programs like Good Shepherd Food Bank’s virtual food drive. Maine’s largest food bank is working to make sure everyone, especially children, have access to healthy, local foods such as dairy and fruits and vegetables. $1 buys four meals, and just $12 can buy 12 cartons of milk.
More than 200,000 people in Maine can be classified as “food insecure,” meaning they do not have access to the food they require to meet their daily dietary needs. That is 15 percent of the population. The percentage is even higher for children, as one in four is food insecure. The pressure to feed these people falls to the food pantries and soup kitchens around the state.
“The need spiked significantly in 2008,” said Clara Whitney, communications and advocacy manager for Good Shepherd Food Bank, adding that it was obviously in connection to the country entering a recession. “Food insecurity spiked by 50 percent and has remained at that high level ever since.
“Who is struggling runs the gamut – from children to the oldest residents in the state. Seniors who worked their entire lives are now not able to get the appropriate nutrients they need in their diet, or they have specialized needs that cannot be met. And it’s the working poor – people who are working one or even two jobs and just don’t have enough money to meet all their incurred expenses. They have transportation costs, health care, heating costs and other utilities. They have expenses they have to pay. The food budget is something that is within their control, it’s something they can cut.”
Thirty-five percent of Maine’s food insecure population does not qualify for government assistance. For those who do, cuts in programs like SNAP are creating even more shortfalls when it comes to a family’s food budget. Oftentimes, it is the healthiest food items – whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and dairy products – that are cut first. Courtney Kennedy, the nutrition and education manager at Good Shepherd, sees that malnourishment and obesity go hand in hand. “People don’t often look at it that way, but it’s a real problem,” she said. Often those who are food insecure are concerned with eating food that will simply fill them up, not nourish their bodies. This is especially troublesome with children.
“We are crippling our future,” Whitney said.
Good Shepherd is the only Feeding America member food bank in the state, and it distributes to more than 600 food pantries and soup kitchens in Maine. It also operates the Cooking Matters program for the state. The program teaches people how to prepare and use fresh foods in their daily meals in ways that are simple and won’t break the bank. They teach participants how they can save by freezing certain foods that were bought in season or in large quantities. Seniors are taught how they can take a recipe and make it to a smaller scale for one person so there is less food waste. Cooking Matters is present in all 16 counties.
This summer, a $10,000 grant from the National Dairy Council helped to support a food truck to travel in conjunction with Good Shepherd’s mobile food pantry. Traveling around the state, a crew would set up shop in a town and then using fresh ingredients, would teach community members how to prepare a quick and easy snack or meal. It is one of only two food trucks in the country that is equipped with a full kitchen for the purpose of teaching and preparing healthy food alongside the mobile pantry, the other being in California.
“It really provided people with an outlet to try something they had not tried before,” Kennedy said. “People are so used to opening a can and dumping it into a sauce pan.”
Through the food truck, people were introduced to tomato, cucumber and feta cheese salad with a light vinaigrette dressing, raw rutabaga with homemade hummus, corn and tomato salsa with quesadillas, and tuna on a cucumber topped with half a cherry tomato and seasoned with oregano, lemon and a light vinaigrette. All simple and all healthy.
Through programs like Mainers Feeding Mainers, in which more than 20 area farm partners produce nearly a million pounds of fresh Maine-grown foods for families in need each year, Good Shepherd is working to get healthy, local fresh foods into Maine’s food pantries. Good Shepherd Food Bank President Kristen Miale recently spoke about the project at the Maine Food Summit hosted on the University of Maine at Orono campus.
“We didn’t want to purchase all our fresh produce from Florida or California. We wanted it to come from Maine,” she said.
Dairy is another fresh, local food that Kennedy would like to see more of in the state’s food pantries. Its level of vitamins and nutrients such as protein, calcium and vitamin D is important for everyone, especially growing children and seniors who need to maintain muscle and bone strength. Milk, as well as items such as cottage cheese, yogurt and cheese, are nutritious options and highly coveted when they are available in food pantries.
The holiday season puts many of us in the giving mood, and food drives are popular this time of year. Often those food drives ask for non-perishable items, so fresh fruits, vegetables and dairy are left out. Good Shepherd Food Bank has found a way around that problem with its virtual food drive, which is being conducted online through the end of December at feedingmaine.org. Monetary donations can be used to purchase fresh foods for food pantries and soup kitchens to distribute.
“It’s the changing landscape of the food banking world,” Kennedy said of the increased education around and distribution of fresh and healthier foods.
“We’re trying to break the cycle of hunger and poverty that’s created when people grow up in food insecure homes,” Whitney added. “If we provide people with nutritious food, they’ll be more healthy and we’ll have a better chance of eliminating hunger once and for all.”
Courtney Kennedy shared the following simple, healthy and delicious recipe with us:
Black Bean and Vegetable Quesadillas
By Chef Deborah Kelly
Serves 6, 1 folded quesadilla per person
½ (15 oz) can black beans, no salt added
2 medium zucchini
1 bunch spinach
1 cup of canned corn (or 1 ear of fresh corn on the cob, removed)
4 oz low-fat cheddar cheese
Pinch ground cayenne pepper
1 T canola oil
6 (8 inch) whole wheat tortillas
Non-stick cooking spray
½ cup non-fat sour cream or Greek yogurt
In a colander, drain and rinse black beans
- Rinse zucchini. Cut into thin slices or shred with a grater.
- Rinse and chop fresh spinach.
- Drain canned corn in a colander.
- Grate cheese.
- In a large skillet over medium-high heat, heat oil. Add zucchini and cayenne pepper. Cook until zucchini is semi-soft, about 5 minutes.
- Add corn and spinach. Cover and cook until tender, stirring a few times, about 5 more minutes. Remove from heat.
- Add black beans to the veggie mixture. Stir to combine.
- Season mixture with salt and pepper. Transfer mixture to medium bowl. Reserve skillet.
- Spread veggie mixture evenly on half of each tortilla. Top with cheese. Fold tortilla over. Press lightly with spatula to flatten.
10. Spray skillet lightly with non-stick cooking spray. Heat over medium-high heat. Add one folded tortilla. Cook about 4 minutes per side, or until both sides of tortilla are golden brown. Repeat until all quesadillas are cooked.
11. Cut each quesadilla into 2 wedges and top with sour cream or Greek yogurt.