For folks in direst need, the main food goal is obtaining sufficient calories.
We Texans face another frustrating dichotomy in that our citizenry ranks 14th nationally in obesity rates for adults despite our next-to-the-bottom food security standing. Again, problems with resource distribution and food quality (to oversimplify the situation, mind you) pave the path to an underfed/undernourished population. Coupled with a pandemic lack of knowledge of nutrition and health, often compounded by inexperience in good food preparation and lack of time to cook, these features of the modern Western world lead to both an unhealthy, overfed burden on our health care system as well as the unacceptable hunger accompanying poverty. Regardless of circumstances, education or income, an empty belly begs for fullness, without any bargaining power to negotiate macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates and fat), let alone micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and phytochemicicals. The USDA’s MyPyramid Food Guidance System may as well be in Egypt, as far as the hungriest Texans are concerned.
Fortunately for the hungry in central Texas, a respectable 80% of the Capital Area Food Bank’s provisions place in the top 1 or 2 nutritional scoring categories (out of 5). But for fresh produce, the sample food pantry distribution for our Hunger Awareness Project offered only a five-pound bag of potatoes. Fairly full of nutrients, and certainly belly-filling and high in energy value, spuds have nearly single-handedly sustained entire populations. We humans derive maximum health benefits, however, from a polychromatic plate—taste the rainbow. (Skittles® was right!) A typical food bank allotment provides deep red in the spaghetti sauce, the sunny yellow of canned corn, and even a bit of green from canned green beans (and jalapeño slices for those who can take the heat). The canned fruit, with its diluted pastels, certainly seems to promise less nutrition than peak of season local glories such as strawberries, peaches, melons, apples and citrus, but current theory (and the gastric growlings of empty bellies) behooves us to accept its comparability to fresh.
But what’s for dinner?
Spaghetti and “spaghetti sauce” of course. There’s our scarlet, loaded with lycopene, actually rendered more bioavailable by the cooking and canning process. Tonight there’s no meat on the table (remember the food pantry allowance must be stretched for an entire month), but we’ve got our brown in the form of meaty Texas-grown portobello mushrooms, purchased on sale (today’s the last day!) at Central Market for $3.99 a pound. That comes out to about a dollar per large ‘shroom, each one sufficient for an adult. Quickly sauteed with a spot of olive oil plus a pinch of thyme and antioxidant champ oregano (bought dried in bulk for just pennies), the seared chunks lend textural and nutritional heft to our simple pasta meal at minimal cost.
We’re fresh out of canned green beans around here, and in the spirit of the challenge I’m shopping minimally. So broccoli stems it is! Hastily trimmed and coarsely shredded from a $2 locally grown (and chemical-free) head, this throwaway vegetable contributes good green while bulking up our sauce. Brown it a bit in a hot pan, the same one you just used to cook your mushrooms, with a restrained drizzle of olive oil. Add a little more verdigris to the mix by topping each portion with fresh basil chiffonade. Basil grows easily in our long season here, even in a pot. For our garden we never purchase a plant or even seeds. We buy fresh local basil from the produce department (located with the other herbs) for a dollar or so and root the fecund fronds in a glass of water at home. Pluck leaves as you need them, and the readily rooting cuttings will be primed for transplanting in three weeks or so. Fancy and nearly free!