What to Do With Free Fresh Food from the Food Pantry

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An Overabundant, Unexpected Blessing of Fresh, Free Food

From the cornucopia, bounty (Photo credit: Martin LaBar)

I got a hell of a deal this week. A friend who has been living on a fixed income her entire adult life walked Husband through the process of using a food pantry, and he brought home two huge boxes full of fresh food as a surprise for me. We needed it. I’m still waiting on a first unemployment check, and it takes time to build a business. So. This is what we got:

  • 24 avocados
  • 3 loaves of nice specialty bread
  • 1 package of dinner rolls
  • approximately 30 individual servings of yogurt
  • a bag of sweet potatoes (about 5 pounds)
  • about 5 pounds of baby carrots
  • 2 big supermarket boxes of baby greens
  • 2 quarts of cherries
  • 6 tomatoes
  • a pound of kiwi fruit

I don’t know what service they went to, but it probably got its supplies from Harvesters, which is an amazing organization here in Kansas City that works tirelessly to make sure everyone has food.

Often people are overwhelmed when they get free fresh food, as it can be difficult to use before it goes bad. This guide hopes to help you with that dilemma. As a side note, with the exception of the cherries (I don’t like cherries) if I were single, there would be no cooking involved other than throwing the sweet potatoes in the oven and topping them with butter. I like raw food. Since I live with carnivorous men, there will be cooking.

Trade and Share Free Food with Friends and Family:

For the most part, we like and can use everything we got this week. If we couldn’t, we’d be sharing it with people less fortunate than ourselves, trading it for things we like more or are more likely to eat before it goes bad.  I keep a list in my head of about a dozen people who I will call if I get food I can’t really use, to pass it on to them. One is a woman who singlehandedly runs a street outreach program for homeless people in our community. Another is an immigrant who collects cans for a living and serves as a one man recycling service.

Preserve and Store Fresh Food

Notice that everything was fresh. This means it spoils. So job one was to preserve everything as quickly as possible. Both the greens and the carrots (separately) went into ice water and vinegar baths (about 1/4 cup of vinegar/gallon) to freshen them up and preserve them for a little longer. They were then rinsed and patted off and put in the refrigerator in air tight plastic bags. I put three of the bags of avocados (which weren’t ripe, thank goodness) in the refrigerator to slow them ripening, and put the fourth where I store root veggies, to ripen more quickly. I can easily eat (alone) an avocado a day in salads, so this is not a hardship for me. The breads, except for one loaf, went in the freezer. The yogurt (except what went with Husband to work for his lunches) went in the refrigerator. The cherries mostly went into Husband’s gullet last night, but what’s left is in the refrigerator. So are the tomatoes.

Match the Free Food with Food You Already Have

I did a little cupboard and freezer shopping. I still have plenty of salad fixings from my last trip to Aldi. I also have:

  • a pork tenderloin (about 8 pounds)
  • about 10 pounds of venison still left, mostly ground
  • a whole broiling chicken
  • sausage
  • lots and lots of canned goods including canned beans, green chiles, salmon, black olives, soups, and all kinds of miscellaneous other stuff
  • rice
  • pastas of various shapes and sizes
  • every spice you can imagine and a few you can’t (Chinese numbing spice, anyone?)
  • flour
  • sugar
  • cooking oils including olive oil
  • butter
  • eggs
  • a couple of different varieties of cheeses
  • dried beans, including navy beans, chick peas, and black beans (I’m out of red beans, which is odd)
  • frozen veggies and fruit (I don’t buy the sauced up ones, just the frozen fresh ones I can cook or use as I choose)

I also have fresh veggies from the garden and farmer’s market (did you know that in several regions of the country you can currently use your SNAP benefits at farmer’s markets at a 2 for 1 rate?)

  • I finally grew broccoli successfully this year, and still have some
  • The peas are in the fridge, and now beans are coming
  • My onions didn’t do well, but I have a ton of onion tops, and the little onions are fine, just not very big.
  • I have enough cherry tomatoes to feed an army, and the Romas are well on their way. The Brandywines are still green though
  • I could probably dig some potatoes at this point.
  • I seem to always have kale and cabbage and collard greens
  • I have pretty much all the fresh herbs I could possibly use.
  • I picked up beets and okra at the farmer’s market this year. My beets are non existent and I’m still a month away from okra.

You may not have as many dry goods around the house as I do. I grew up with a mother who was deeply affected by the depression and hoarded food, and I have to some extent inherited that tendency from her.

Research Some Recipes that Use Your Free Food:

I have an entire bookcase full of cookbooks, plus an internet connection that will get me to millions of recipes. If you don’t have one or the other of these, collect recipes from the library, save them on handwritten cards the old fashioned way, or buy cookbooks at garage sales and thrift stores for next to nothing. Take the time to surf the net, run to the library, or pore through your cookbooks looking for interesting ways to use your ingredients.  As a bonus, you may discover new favorite dishes you never would have tried. Check to make sure you have (or can improvise) everything you need for the recipes. Blenders, for instance, are lovely to have, but you can make a perfectly good ‘blended’ soup with a sieve and a big spoon or pestle. It can be oddly satisfying to push all that mushy stuff through the sieve and into the bowl below, especially if you’re angry.

Plan Meals for Fresh Foods Based on How Long the Food will Last:

I looked through the list and decided that of all those nifty fresh free foods I got,  the carrots are top priority because they’re at the end of their lifespan. The baby greens are next, though they perked up nicely after an ice water and vinegar bath (the vinegar helps preserve them)

Tonight, I’m having some variation on carrot soup. (those carrots aren’t going to keep long). I think curried carrot soup is winning the competition, although this classic carrot soup recipe has its positive points (including an excuse to buy a bottle of white wine to go with dinner). With it, I’m going to have a large green salad (yes, more on that later), some dinner rolls (I may toast them for croutons) and I might add fresh thyme from the gardent to the soup. If I can get away with it, tonight will be meatless. Or else I’ll throw a few packaged meatballs into the soup (Aldi, of course).

Tomorrow is official grill day. We’ll be slicing up about half the tenderloin into chops (it’s much cheaper than buying pre-cut chops, and a better cut of meat). We’ll also be chopping beets, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and carrots into 1/4-1/2 inch pieces, adding butter, garlic, and onion, and packaging them in aluminum foil for a root vegetable grill.

Breakfast every day will be yogurt until they’re gone. That won’t take as long as you think.

The tomatoes  and bread will go into BLTs for a couple of days or so. I’m looking for bacon on sale somewhere. If Husband doesn’t wolf down all the cherries by Sunday, I’ll bake a cherry turnover or pie. (He’ll almost certainly eat them all)

The avocados will go in salads and guacamole and I might even make baked avocado eggs for brunch sometime this weekend (on weekends we often eat like hobbits: 1st breakfast, 2nd breakfast, brunch, lunch, tea, dinner and supper). T

he kiwis will go into shakes I make based on almond milk or milk, with various fresh and frozen fruit added, that I often have for breakfast or a mid afternoon snack. I will have salads every day for lunch, and as a side at dinner, until all the greens are gone.

And a Bonus “Recipe” for Maureen’s Choice Salad:

As I have pointed out in the past, I don’t actually follow recipes unless I’m baking or candy making. I think of cooking as an ongoing chemistry experiment for which I know most (but not all) the rules. I discovered a long time ago that I like fresh greens, veggies and fruits enough that fresh salads are my favorite lunches if I can get it together enough to get them made every day. I use several elements to make my salads. When possible, I always have about 2 cups of greens, a cup or so of fresh and/or canned veggies, another cup or so of protein ingredients, a quarter to a half cup of fatty ingredients, and (when available) a quarter cup to a cup of fresh or canned fruits (without syrup). I generally skip the dressing, because it’s overkill.

Here’s the formula:

I start with a BIG bowl or storage container (a quart or two) because I make salads with a pretty low calorie content per item, which means I need a lot to feel full. Greens (wash and rinse well, and choose from the following to 2 cups):

  • Baby greens
  • Romaine lettuce
  • Spinach
  • Arugula/rocket
  • Mustard greens (sparingly)
  • Very young kale
  • Dandelion greens (if foraging, make sure they haven’t been sprayed, and wash well)

(this time of year, I usually buy my greens, because Missouri in the summer is too hot to grow them. I’ll be starting my fall greens in a few weeks) Veggies (choose from the following, as many as you like to 1 cup):

  • Broccoli
  • Mushrooms
  • Carrots (diced or shredded)
  • Radishes
  • “Sunchoke” or Jerusalem artichoke
  • Water chestnuts
  • Fresh or canned beets
  • Fresh peas or pea pods
  • Fresh tomatoes or sun-dried tomatoes (warm from the sun cherry tomatoes fresh off the vine are amazing in salad)
  • Artichoke hearts (I like the simple canned ones. You can use the pickled ones if you like them better)
  • Sweet peppers
  • Onion (I like to caramelize mine. I’m not a big fan of raw onion)

Protein ingredients (choose from the following, as many as you like to 1/2 cup):

  • Hard boiled egg
  • Crab or “crab” meat
  • Garbanzo beans/chickpeas
  • Edamame (fresh or dried)
  • Black beans (canned, rinsed) or three-bean salad (canned)
  • Bacon (sparingly, counts as fat, but not good fat)
  • Leftover meat from last night’s dinner
  • Shrimp
  • Lentils

Fatty ingredients:

  • Olives (sparingly due to salt content)
  • Avocados (go ape here, if you want. I do)
  • Pistachios, peanuts, pine nuts, almonds, or other nuts
  • Peanuts
  • Sunflower seeds or other seeds
  • Cheeses (sparingly)

Sweet/fruit ingredients (up to a cup – go easy on the dried and canned ones):

  • Raisins and/or dried cranberries
  • Strawberries, raspberries or other berries
  • Canned peaches/pears or mandarin oranges (w/o syrup if possible)
  • Lychee nuts (which are a fruit, actually)
  • Diced apples or bananas
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Mango (fresh or frozen and then thawed)

Mix the whole thing up, and plan on taking some time for lunch, because there is no way to eat this salad slowly. If you made too much, save half for later, but if you’re saving it after you’ve eaten from the container, eat or compost it after no more than 48 hours. To make it easier to make my salads, I store all the cold ingredients in the fridge stacked in reusable storage containers or resealable plastic bags and all the room temperature ingredients together on one shelf in the cupboard.

I prep everything that needs slicing, dicing, or shredding once a week to last me the week, and I crank on some music while I slice and dice. When you find free fresh food, it’s important to make sure you are able to use as much of it as possible.

A Note on Supplies and Privilege:

I know I still have some significant privileges here when it comes to using fresh food. I have a garden (and the skills and space to grow one). I have some decent cooking skills and others to help me with the cooking.

I have a pretty well stocked kitchen in terms of tools and cookware. I have hoarded enough canned, dried and frozen foods to keep from starving for well over a month (but with some really odd choices, if not supplemented by food coming in) That doesn’t change the fact that you can learn to eat well on pantry and ‘cheap’ food, too, and learn to use the free fresh food you may be lucky enough to find.

Maybe I ought to write a followup on stocking a kitchen inexpensively with tools (essential vs. optional). What do you think?

  • Food Bank versus Food Pantry – Different organizations working toward the same goal (thegleanersfeed.wordpress.com)
  • 25 Must Have Survival Foods: Put Them In Your Pantry Now (thedailysheeple.com)
  • Organizing a Pantry (basicorganization.wordpress.com)
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