Crates and cartons clang and rattle. Plastic hampers clack as they are stacked together. Carts laden with food roll to-and-fro as tow-motors and forklifts whine and clunk as they set down heavy skids of boxes.
Last year, The Food Bank of Waterloo Region acquired and distributed over 6.3 million pounds of food to their Community Food-Assistance Network and their provincial partners.
To do that, it required 2,600 volunteers across the organization, including Kitchener resident Andy McKay.
McKay says his twice weekly volunteer hours in the food bank warehouse have him building orders for those partners.
He also calls it a time “to give back”.
“It’s a great place to volunteer,” says McKay. “I’m retired, and it’s fun. I do it six months a year and it’s kind of my gig.”
The food that McKay helps distribute to the Food Bank’s member agencies is overseen by Chelsea Frey, a registered dietitian and fresh approaches coordinator at the food Bank.
Frey says the organization – like all food banks – has been especially busy during this period, getting nutrition to people with not enough healthy food.
Healthy and nutritious meal ingredients
Over the years, with increased need, demographic shifts in population and improved technology, the food hampers have continued to evolve into healthy and nutritious meal ingredients – and enticing food selections.
“The food bank hampers sent out are a mixture of fresh, frozen and canned items. There’s a wide range of products like fruit and vegetables, grain products, dairy products and meat or other frozen proteins,” Frey says.
Paramount is balanced nutrition, but variety is also important, she says, adding that they align as closely as possible with Canada’s Food Guide when creating the hampers.
The need for variety has broadened as the cultural fabric of our communities evolves, according to Frey.
“We’re finding there are a lot of Halal families that are accessing our programs, so we’ve made it a priority to source Halal products so it’s always available to those families.”
Providing diverse food options for a diverse community
Cultural staples like rice, dried beans, flours and oils and items used commonly on an everyday basis are now more widely stocked (See vegetable fried rice recipe, below).
And with the diversity of holiday celebrations in the community, food banks strive to source foods that satisfy various “cultural, dietary, and religious needs,” Frey says.
That includes the distribution of hampers during Ramadan this year, for example.
As a registered dietitian (RD), Frey is in a somewhat unique position as an on-site RD at a food bank, she says, but there “a handful” on staff at food banks across Canada.
“The role allows dietitians to bring their expertise to support food banks in providing nutritious food, accommodating individuals with specialized diets, providing nutrition education and maintaining food-safety standards,” she says.
In 2018, the food bank built a food-processing centre, a room designed and outfitted – replete with stainless steel and specialized wall coverings and floors akin to those in dairy production – to prepare fresh food for storage and distribution.
Since its installation, the food bank has processed over 300,000 pounds of food.
“That includes bananas, berries, peppers and even chicken legs and ground meat,” Frey says. “It has allowed us to increase the variety, quality and quantity of the food we send out to the community.”
Before the room was installed, there was much more food waste, and the food bank was limited in how much fresh food they could accept because they couldn’t distribute it fast enough, according to Frey.
“We can now accept larger donations of fresh produce. What doesn’t get sent out immediately is diverted to the Fresh Approaches Food Centre where we can chop, slice, dice, vacuum-seal and freeze fresh, nutritious foods, especially for wintertime.”
Ultimately, Frey’s approach to creating a nutritious food hamper is good advice for just about anyone looking to eat healthily in a time of rising food costs and shrinking resources.
It starts with simplicity and creating a balanced plate, she says. And it includes making use of canned goods like beans and lentils which can help your budget and make meals go farther (visit www.thefoodbank/blog for recipe ideas).
“Try to make half of your plate fruits and vegetables, one quarter whole grains and one quarter protein,” Frey says. “It’s versatile and you can adapt what you have on hand.”
While there is a lot of food at area food banks like The Food Bank of Waterloo Region, your support is still needed. If you can, make a cash donation to food banks in your community as they continue their important work.
Food Bank of Waterloo Region recipe
Vegetable Fried Rice
2 cloves garlic, minced (or ½ teaspoons garlic powder)
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger (or ¼ teaspoon ginger powder)
1 carrot, diced (fresh or frozen)
1 red bell, diced (fresh or frozen)
4 green onions, sliced
2 large eggs, slightly beaten
1 cup frozen peas
3 tablespoons cooking oil
3 cups rice, cooked and cooled
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil (optional)
Heat a large skillet over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of oil to coat pan. Add eggs and scramble until cooked. Remove from pan and set aside. Increase heat to medium-high. Add carrots, cook 2 minutes. Add bell pepper and white part of green onions, cook for 1 minute. Add peas, cook until heated through. Remove vegetables from pan and set aside. Add 1 tablespoon of cooking oil to skillet. Add garlic, ginger and rice. Cook, stirring frequently, for two minutes or until heated through. Add soy sauce and toasted sesame oil to rice and stir to combine. Remove from heat and gently stir in scrambled eggs and vegetables. Top with green part of green onions and serve.