Around the back of the Pullman Safeway, a shopping cart emerges through an unmarked door. A man in a stocking cap pushes a precarious load of bakery items to the minivan waiting by the curb. Moments later, he returns with a second cart. Then a third.
Every Tuesday and Wednesday morning, Liz Siler ’78 and her cart-steering husband Pat ’61 load their van nearly to the roof with day-old loaves of generic and artisan bread, hot dog buns, cakes, muffins, bagels, croissants, and chocolate Cutie Pies.
Destined for Pullman’s Community Action Center Food Bank, the donations will replenish the shelves in the “bread room” for one scant day. But the rest of the pantry is less easily filled. That’s a concern for Liz Siler, one of Pullman’s leading food bank advocates.
“Look at this,” she says shaking her puff of blonde hair in disapproval after we unload the baked goods and enter the cramped storeroom. “We’re really low on supplies. Canned fruit. No juice. This is unacceptable.”
The Silers have been food bank volunteers from the time their 13-year-old son Brian asked to take part in a community service. Providing food for the area’s low income community seemed like a good fit for the whole family. Seven years later Brian, a WSU criminal justice major, and his sister Pamela Mejia ’04 still help out.
They organize food drives in Pullman, recruiting the help of community groups whenever possible. A recent interfaith drive drew volunteers from the local Muslim, Jewish, and Christian congregations and netted around 1,600 pounds in donations.
But the bounty of one drive is quickly distributed and eaten. The need never ends yet donations have been dropping over the last couple years. To complicate matters, the types of foods needed are becoming more specific.
“We’ve seen an influx of people with serious dietary concerns: children with celiac disease who can’t eat gluten, severe dairy allergies, and diabetics who have to be careful with sugar and salt,” says Siler. “The needs were not being met very well and we really didn’t know what to do.”
Typically, the food bank provides standard bags of groceries.When someone requests a different food item for medical or religious reasons, the staff had been substituting another product while the client waited. But after a few years of traffic jams and hurt feelings among the regular clients, the process had to change.
While some of the nation’s larger food banks allow patrons to browse the aisles and pick out specialty foods, it wasn’t an option for the tiny CAC pantry. Smaller food banks had no models to go on.
Then Siler had the idea of pre-assembling specialty bags. She brainstormed with her daughter Pamela, who was earning a master’s degree in nutrition at the time, and the two came up with lists of foods recommended for gluten-free, diabetic, vegan, and kosher and halal consumers.
The plan, implemented in 2010, turned out to be a hit with clients. Now, Wednesday afternoons find Siler back at the food pantry searching for the right cans and packages to fill each bag. With donations uncertain and often in short supply, her quest has the air of a treasure hunt.
“We have to check the labels very carefully,” she says sorting through vegetables for the gluten-free bag. “We can’t have any form of gluten, wheat, or barley.” She picks up a tin of corn and reads, “methyl cellulose—I don’t know what that is so I’m not putting it in.” She grabs another. “Spinach, water, and salt. Ok, we can use that.”
Siler moves quickly between shelves, checking her list. “Soups are a disaster,” she warns. “Anything that says flavoring usually has some gluten in it.” She rejects one can after another until suddenly discovering an acceptable can of lentil soup and gives a little cheer.
When it comes to stocking the diabetic bags, all the food must be low in sugar, salt, and carbs. That eliminates most canned fruit and many of the vegetables. “We need to look for green veggies, like string beans, not starchy ones like corn,” Siler explains.
Instead of the usual macaroni and cheese, she substitutes two large packages of whole-wheat pasta. “We want to give diabetics whole grains as the carbohydrates absorb more slowly and there’s more fiber.”
She cautiously decides on a can of chicken noodle soup that offers just 10 grams of carbohydrates per serving but is high in salt. “It’s a trade off,” Siler sighs.
The Muslim/Jewish bag is more straightforward. “We avoid all meat products except fish and anything with alcohol,” Siler says. Traditional halal (Muslim) and kosher (Jewish) dietary laws require meat to be slaughtered and processed in accordance with religious standards.
The vegan bags, also suitable for those with lactose intolerance, are easy for Siler who is a long-time vegan herself. “We offer this bag because so many people have food allergies. Plus Pullman has a Hindu community,” she says. “There can’t be any meat or animal by-products like lard or gelatin. No milk, whey, casein. No eggs or honey.”
While the food bank is managing to meet the clients’ dietary needs, it still faces other challenges, Siler confides. “People come in who don’t have a can opener or electricity, and we’ve had people living under a bridge who could only use disposable eat-and-go kind of food.”
“And though most people know what to do with a can of SpaghettiOs, many have no idea what to do if we hand them a bag of lentils or a bunch of turnips,” she says. Siler and her fellow volunteers have new solutions to seek. “We want to find ways to provide healthy recipes and help people get the most out of the products we give them,” she says. “Humble ramen noodles can have a hundred uses … you know what I mean?”