We’re more than just canned foods


“Today I had my first food bank experience. I can’t remember ever being through anything more humiliating.”

So begins a personal essay, published in 2006 in Briarpatch magazine.   In it, the author details their first visit to a food program and their frustrated expectations, hopes and forced adjustment to less than ideal circumstances.  You can read it by clicking here.

The author concludes their essay by commenting, “How would I ever feed my family if this was all I had to live on?”

The author of the Briar Patch article raises some important points throughout to reflect on, but this question is what we ask ourselves each day when we take stock of what is in our warehouse.

On this blog, we have talked a lot about the generosity of our donors and the range of items we have, but often, visitors to our program, or a local program like us have to make do with less than they would like.  In one of Nadir’s previous posts he detailed (here) how we strive to meet people’s special dietary needs.  I’ve talked about what the different food items mean to different people, as well as how long we think the food will last (here). But we have yet to really touch on the stereotypical ideas people have about food hamper programs and a few details beyond these ideas.

People’s conceptions of food banks are many.  First time visitors can be embarrassed, angry, indifferent, joyful or tearful. Most are not sure what to expect when they walk through our doors.  Our goal is when they walk out they will not feel the shame and frustration that the author I just quoted did, but we can never really know for sure.

Though non-perishable products are a big part of the food assistance that we provide, our program has many more types of food to offer. This often comes as a welcome surprise to many first-time patrons, since few people expect that a food assistance program would have the facilities or donations to distribute perishable foods. One reason people may expect only non-perishable food hampers is because they may be familiar with the Food Banks wish list, which are all non-perishable items. Alternatively, they may see the items overflowing in the food bank donation bin in their local grocery store.  From here they may use this information to create a vision in their head that food assistance programs only offer boxes of canned goods.

Another common stereotype related to this is that food hampers include weird foods like diet Jell-O, moldy bread, and questionable, expired, dented or unlabeled cans to be offered in food hampers. Though these tales may be experienced by some, such as the author of the essay cited above, many programs strive to do better than these expectations. For example, our program does our best to ensure that all the food we distribute is recognizable with a label, contains cans that are not dented or bulging, and have not passed the recommended date to be consumed by.

So what do our hampers provide beyond non-perishable foods? Well we’ve touched on this in previous blogs, such as a day in the life of food hamper, but this aspect has never been given a lot of spotlight. I’ll start with some hints to see if you can guess! It’s not our produce (since we’ve blogged about some of the many thank you’s we owe to local farmers and other agencies for their generous support). It’s not the bread that is generously donated every year, and one of our biggest donations by weight. And it’s not focusing on our calcium products such as yogurt and Goat’s milk. Give up? This remainder of this blog post will focus on the frozen meat donations that we receive each week from the Food Bank.

Each week Raymond (our warehouse coordinator) submits a food request to the Food bank, which typically involves one skid of mixed meat products. This skid of meat and other frozen entrees is enough work to keep someone busy for more than 30 hours a week! There’s a lot of work involved in bagging boxes of individual pieces of meat, organizing the walk-in freezer, creating pre-packed bags of meat for each family size and diet preference, and keeping the chest freezers full for the hamper packers. Thankfully we have a volunteer (Bob) that is dedicated to come in every day to provide us with the much-needed assistance to stay on top of this tremendous task and help ensure each hamper has a pre-pack available.

The work Bob does at the meat counter is no easy task! He’s taken on the responsibility to ensure that many different areas are stocked with pre-packs such as our regular diet chest freezer, no pork diet chest freezer, Halal chest freezer, and box of vegetarian products in our walk-in freezer. The regular and no pork chest freezers are also divided into proportional weights for each family size of one to four persons, to help simplify and speed up the hamper packing process. Then for larger families Bob will make something up when the intake slip is submitted to the warehouse, or there are boxes of pre-packs tucked away for larger families in the walk-in freezer. However when there is a Halal or vegetarian hamper Bob creates something on the spot.

Though the weight of each pre-pack bag doesn’t change from week to week, the specific items in each bags do tend to change from shipment to shipment. The changes that happen in these pre-packs are another piece of the work I do in my hamper audit project, which I’ve been doing for the last 132 weeks. Doing this has allowed me to collect a lot of information. To do this I’ll show you some of the graphs that I’ve created for the most common meats available for each diet choice (regular, no pork and vegetarian). Each graph summarizes the overall data for families of one to four persons, which I’ll go into more detail below.

Please note that I haven’t created a graph for Halal pre-packs as these generally don’t change each week, aside from whether it’s frozen halal chicken or halal beef. Instead my notes contain the chart with the typical standard that we follow when packing pre-packs for halal hampers:

Family Size Contents
One person 0.5 kg frozen meat and one can of fish.
Two person 1 kg frozen meat and two cans of fish.
Three person 1 kg frozen meat, two cans of meat and one can of beans or lentils.
Four person 1.5 kg frozen meat, two cans of meat and one can of beans or lentils.

One of the reasons we generally shy away from making pre-packs of halal hampers is because it’s easier to make these on the spot than it is to find a good way to store these mixed pre-packs of frozen and canned goods together.

“Regular Meat”

Regular meat choices refer to patrons who are willing to eat any type of meat, whether it’s chicken, sausages, turkey, bacon, beef, ham, pork, etc. Though they may receive pork based meats more often, they’re not excluded from non-pork products as well, which you can see in the graph below.

One interesting fact to note is that though our donations tend to change each week, sausages still remain high up on the list. This is likely because it’s not unusual for one or more family sizes to contain a bag of sausages in a pre-pack each week. Yes single patrons tend to receive sausages most frequently, since they are smaller and easier to divide to the appropriate weight. However as you can see we do have a fairly good variety of other products that have also been cycled through the pre-packs.

No Pork

For many different reasons there are patrons who prefer to not eat pork. Most avoid pork for religious or cultural reasons, or as part of a medical diet. Regardless of the reason, we’re got lots of variety to share, which can be seen from the graph below:

Occasionally we encounter patrons who request a no pork diet that are specifically looking for only chicken, which we’re often able to accommodate, given the large number of different chicken products that are commonly distributed.  However, as our donations fluctuate we’re not always able to meet this request, which patrons generally understand.


At our program, two of the main sources of “meat” products for vegetarians are cheese, and soy or tofu based faux meat products, such as burgers or hot dogs. Although when these donations are low we’ll often have extra rice and canned beans or lentils to offer as a “protein” substitute.  A lot of people say they’re vegetarian, but actually eat fish… which technically isn’t a vegetable.  But still, I’ve included it into the graph.

One of the benefits to being able to offer a variety of products in our hampers is that we are able to re-create a sense of normalcy in the lives of those who need food assistance. Each one faces a different crisis that has thrown their lives for a loop; so we’re trying to help reverse that loop by providing a diverse hamper that is full of foods that people typically enjoy having at home, such as meat. For our program it’s just another day-to-day task to ensure our freezers are full; but to our patrons it means obtaining the main part of a meal, and a sigh of relief. The Cambridge Self-Help Food Bank says their goal is “to have everyone walk out feeling better than when they came in.” Our own statement of values reflects this as well. For us this is just a small step to meeting human rights so that those who fall on hard times are not forgotten, but given the chance to obtain most of the foods they regularly eat.

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