If only they knew…

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“If people only knew how to cook, then a lot of them wouldn’t need to come to the food bank, they’d be able to get by on their limited budget – food is cheap…some people on welfare don’t even know how to boil water!”

Believe it or not, this is a common sentiment expressed by people when I’m talking to them about the many people who struggle to put food on their table each day.  People have said all of the above to me at many points in my travels.

There is a widespread belief that a lot of the problems low income people face each day are of their own creation.  Education is held up as one of the big solutions to their problems. This is partly true for many people, and on a certain level it makes sort of sense in general terms. However, as with many articles of “common sense”, there is fiction mixed in with a few grains of truth.

In January this year, the ever food conscious public health department released a report (found here as a .pdf) detailing self reported food skills in Waterloo Region. They conducted a survey of 703 adults because they were curious about local food skills and also because there is a lack of published research describing food skills of adults in a Canadian community. The department is also mandated to provide education where needed, and collect information on population health, so it was a good project to do.

What they found is something I learned a long time ago watching people in the lobby sort through their hampers, namely; people with lower incomes tend to cook from scratch more often, bake from scratch more often, and preserve food more often than higher income people. They have these skills because, in order to survive, they need to take a jumble of what is cheap, available, and accessible, and stretch it as far as they can, in as many ingenious ways as they can.

As the report points out, “[a]dults with higher incomes may have less practice developing their skills or choose to avoid complex, time consuming tasks, likely eating out more often and using more convenience products.”  Food preparation is time consuming, and if you have the money, you also have the option of saving time, and buying more ready made boxed or take out lunches and dinners.

Obviously, not everyone is a Jamie Oliver in disguise, but as the survey indicates, necessity clearly teaches people a thing or two.

While offering a person a hamper at our “window” in the lobby, and presenting them with the extra items we have that day; it’s not uncommon for people to list off the various recipes they know that include the item. If you ask them a few questions you can also learn a little about the methods of preservation they’re intending on using to keep it for a rainy day, be it asparagus, squash, plantain, flour or turnips.

Some people, will give you a blank look when you offer them an avocado and reply “is that a fruit or something?”, but most are willing to try something new (and probably something they’ve never had the money to buy themselves) which is why we try and supply tips suggestions and recipe cards whenever possible.

We are very fortunate to receive a variety of food items during the year from our donors, local businesses like Pfenning’s Organics, local farmers, the Elmira Produce Auction, and Herrle’s to name a few.  On a good day they help us lend a local and global flavour to our hampers, and give people a good mix of fruits and vegetables, which, as the survey says, will get put to good, knowledgeable use.

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