Five days on a Hamper Diet: surviving, or thriving?

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In two other posts, our intrepid summer students discussed “living inside the box,” including planning meals and dealing with the unexpected when your only groceries are from the Emergency Food Program. In this piece, Jessica shifts the discussion out of the abstract, describing her experience living on the actual contents of a food hamper, for five days. (She bought the items, don’t worry!) As her story unfolds, compare it with other more theoretical entries on this blog. Now, here’s Jessica!

My thoughts going into the assignment

In my last blog post I questioned the sustainability of our five day meal plans. In short, was it really enough food to eat well for five days? So, for this assignment I wanted to actually prepare and eat a single person family hamper. This Friday I am going to record what items would be in a one person hamper and purchase them at my local grocery store. I am only going to use the items that would be provided in the hamper with the exception of salt and pepper.

Going into this activity of actually executing a designed meal plan I was quite nervous. I was unsure of what to expect and what I would receive in my hamper that day.

Would I like the food options?

Would there be enough food to last the designated period of time?

I believe these feelings might be similar to customers who use our program, especially for the first time. This is why it seems so important to help program patrons feel comfortable and answer any questions they might have.

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a picky eater but there are some items that I would prefer not to eat. This makes me think of all the children that only want to eat certain food items like chicken nuggets and french fries. How do their parents or guardians handle that situation when all they have available is the food we provide them?

Although extremely healthy for you I’m a lot like most children and do not enjoy eating vegetables, maybe with dip but that’s about it. So designing a personalized meal plan for myself may be trickier than just a general meal plan Sarah and I created earlier where I didn’t incorporate my personal food preferences.

This assignment should be very interesting and a great learning experience for myself to gain a larger understanding of what some of our single person family customers may be going through when designing and preparing meals for themselves.

Time to go shopping!

So, Friday rolled around, and I packed a hamper for one. There they were, my next five days, sitting in banana box:

  • 1(4lbs) Bag of Oranges
  • 12 Pack of Buns
  • 1(454g) Salted Butter
  • 500g Mozzarella Cheese
  • 1 Row of Crackers
  • 1(5lbs) Bag of Potatoes
  • 2(650g) Tubs of Vanilla Yogurt
  • 1(500g) Tub of Plain Greek Yogurt
  • 16 Pack of Yogurt
  • 1(375g) Box of Macaroni
  • 1(170g) Bag of Pearl Onions
  • 1(355ml) Bottle of Gatorade
  • 1(4 pack) of Chocolate Croissants
  • 2 Large Broccoli
  • 1(453g) Can Brown Beans
  • 1 Nutrigrain Bar
  • 1 Large White Onion
  • 5 Red Bananas
  • 1(398ml) Creamed Corn
  • 1(284ml) Chicken Noodle Soup
  • 2 Frozen Microwave Dinners

“Grocery list” in hand, I went to Zehr’s after work, and got to shopping. And then planning.

Not-entirely-representative generic image of groceries.

 

The plan of action

Here’s the meal plan I came up with:

Day One:             Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Banana

Snack: 2 Yogurt Cups

Lunch: 2 Rolls with Sliced Cheese and Butter

Snack: 1 Orange

Dinner: Microwave Dinner and Gatorade

Bun with Butter

Dessert: 1 Chocolate Croissant

Snack: 1 Yogurt Cup

 

Day Two:             Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Banana

Snack: 2 Yogurt Cups

Lunch: ½ Potato Salad (Potatoes, Greek Yogurt, Chopped Pearl Onion, Salt Pepper)

Bun with Butter

Snack: 1 Orange

Dinner: 1 Can Baked Beans and Bun with Butter

Dessert: 1 Chocolate Croissant

 

Day Three:          Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Banana

Snack: Cheese and Crackers

Lunch: 2 Rolls with Sliced Cheese and Butter

Snack: Broccoli and Dip (Greek Yogurt, Chopped Pearl Onion, Salt and Pepper)

Dinner: Macaroni and Cheese (Macaroni with Butter and Melted Cheese)

Left over Potato Salad Fried in Pan

Bun with Butter

Dessert: 1 Chocolate Croissant

 

Day Four:             Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Banana

Snack: 1 Orange

Lunch: Left over Macaroni and Cheese

Snack: 2 Yogurt Cups

Dinner: Microwave Dinner

Bun with Butter

Dessert: 1 Chocolate Croissant

 

Day Five:              Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Banana

Snack: Cheese and Crackers

Lunch: Chicken Noodle Soup

Snack: 1 Orange

Dinner: Home Fries (Potatoes, Butter, Salt, and Pepper)

Creamed Corn

Bun with Butter

Desert: Nutrigrain Bar

 

Day Six:                Breakfast: 1/3 Tub of Vanilla Yogurt and 1 Orange

Snack: 2 Yogurt Cups

Lunch: 2 Rolls with Butter

Snack: 2 Orange

*underlined area not completed due to illness

Going day to day

On the first day I’m already finding that what is planned for that day’s meals are always subject to change. I began to rearrange my meal plan to suit what I felt like preparing and eating at that time. As well, what meal plans and preparations fit into my schedule that day. On busier evenings I may not have time to prepare meals the way I would on evenings where I am free. I’m sure this comes into play with our customers lives as well, especially if they have children.  I live with my fiancé and he already has his eye on the chocolate croissants that were available in the Fridays hamper. This brings up the question of company and friends that come over—is hospitality just as important as having a full meal myself?

Food is such a large part of many cultures and events that bring people together. Many holidays, religious celebrations and occasions are based around meals usually with a large abundance of food and drink. One thing I am finding a bit difficult is only having a small Gatorade to drink besides water, which I already drank. Although I’m sure it’s much healthier than juice, I do miss the different drink choices.

Day two

I am also starting to realize that what looks like a good idea on paper may not play out as one would assume. On the second day for lunch I had made a potato salad with a mixture of hamper items. Although better tasting than originally thought, a large portion of potatoes for lunch wasn’t such a good idea. I felt quite sick after eating and wasn’t able to even eat half of the potatoes I had portioned for my lunch. And though it might go without saying, I didn’t have anything else to eat instead.

Too much of a good thing is, still, too much.

I think it is wonderful that our Emergency Food Hamper Program provides fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as other fridge items such as yogurt. When grocery shopping for these items I realized how expensive some of these items can be. Many of these items, although very healthy for you, may not always be an option for individuals on a tight grocery budget.

Day three, I will rue the day I tried to make macaroni and cheese?

After the third day of having yogurt and a banana, I feel my breakfasts are becoming a little repetitive and not something I look forward to in the morning right now.  I started to become less excited about my available meal choices. This might sound trivial, but food is so important! Almost like a diet for weight loss, I am limited to what I can prepare and eat based on what I would have received in that days hamper. Food often brings me joy, and break in my day I look forward to. When the choice of what to eat is more limited than usual I find I am less interested in eating. What I eat for the most part has usually been something that I am able to choose and control, which I feel is somewhat restricted over the last three days.

At the same time I even more appreciate the choices available in the hamper slips presented to our patrons. Though imperfect, it allows for a larger choice in the food received and becomes a more personalized grocery experience. Our customers in addition to the list of items often write on the bottom of the slip any other items they wish to receive. Our staff and volunteers really try their best to make the hamper packing as personalized as possible with the items we have available. The Emergency Food Hamper Program will also exchange like items. This meaning that our customers are able to receive the type or flavor of item they prefer if it is available.

For dinner on the third day only using the items I had available in my hamper I attempted to make macaroni and cheese. Using mozzarella cheese for the sauce with butter didn’t work out as well as planned; the cheese did not melt down into a sauce but was a gooey ball that I then placed on top of the already boiled noodles. Not quite as appetizing as I was hoping.

Local artist's re-creation of DIY macaroni and cheese

Local artist’s re-creation of Jessica’s macaroni and cheese

Having to create meals with different ingredients can be a challenge. However, if I did not receive the cheese and butter in my hamper, many of the meal plan options would not have been possible. Depending on the day, instead of cheese or butter, I could have received possibly a dip or sour cream—and most days, you don’t get either, let alone both. Like I had mentioned previously, the combination of items always has a large effect of what meals can be possibly made. Some weeks can be much easier to design a meal plan than other weeks.

Day four and five, sick and tired

As I get closer to the end of the designated 5/6 day period and the less amount of food available, I have realized that I have used the food items that I was more interested in eating earlier in the week and have items left over that are not as appealing.

On the fifth day I was extremely sick with a cold, which may have been a part of having less food and not as balanced meals as usual. Due to my bad cold I did not have the energy to cook items that required a lot of preparation and cooking time. I was able to have the yogurt and banana for breakfast, and the chicken noodle soup for lunch, which was great because I was sick. For dinner the planned meal was potatoes which I was going to peel, boil and then fry in a pan. None of those steps I had energy for. Many of our customers are recipients of Ontario Disability Support Program and their mobility, health and energy can be greatly affected. This situation was one of the main reason I wanted to execute the meal plan. I knew that there would be many factors that one could not account for when designing a meal plan, such as energy and health.

Reflections and thoughts:  What can food banks do?

Having talked to friends and family about this experience I have heard stories of others experiences and knowledge of other food bank services. Many food bank/hamper programs offer very little in the way of fresh or refrigerated food, some only having non-perishable items available for their patrons. This limits any options of designing proper meals or any creativity in meal planning for their patrons. Non-perishable items such as soup and pasta are only a small part of what the Emergency Food Hamper Program provides to their patrons. I am so glad that this organization is able to give our customers a variety of food that is healthy and substantial for a 3-5 day period.

Overall I am glad that I decided to take on this assignment. I hope that this has allowed me an opportunity to experience in part what some of our patrons may be experiencing. I have found that the amount of food I received was sustainable for over a 5 day period but many factors such as my cold and cooking abilities came into play, which I would not have necessarily factored into my meal plan originally. Like many things in life what sounds good on paper doesn’t always play out the way you were hoping—fortunately, I could go back to Zehr’s after five days and get what I wanted, if I wanted to. This is not the case for many of our patrons.

I have enjoyed being a part of this great program and this experience has made me even more grateful for services like this in our community.

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