Let Them Eat Cake: COVID and Food Donations

Let Them Eat Cake: COVID and Food Donations 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

COVID-19 has made hunger a reality for many in countries such as the U.S. and U.K., where food insecurity has  been limited to the very poor.

Food banks are stretched, as they now must serve many more hungry  people.

Widening hunger has spurred food donations, private, corporate, and public. Yet many of these  – whether wittingly or not – are made in the spirit of Marie Antoinette.

Spaghettios and Pepper Pot Soup: My Childhood Donations to the Children of Bangladesh

Food donations all too often reflect the perceptions and motivations of the donor, and don’t accord with what the recipient wants or needs.

I remember my first experience with food donations, when my Brownie – junior Girl Scout troop collected tinned food for the children of Bangladesh. Ahat crisis led to us why we were collecting food for Bangladesh? Was it at the time of the concert for Bangladesh – 1971 – to raise money for in the wake of the Bangladesh Liberation War? No, that wasn’t it, because by then I was ten and too old for the Brownies. I think it was in the wake of he Bhola cyclone in 1970, when a half million people died.  The early ‘70s were not a happy time in Bangladesh.

After returning home from out collecting efforts, my mother asked me what I wanted to donate. That was easy: spaghettios. I hated spaghettios, perhaps due to my general and continued dislike of many mushy foods – still can’t eat muesli, cold breakfast cereal, or oatmeal. Spaghettios for those not familiar with this triumph of American food processing are the ultimate mushy food: tinned, ready to eat pasta rounds! It was my pleading – no doubt influenced by the catchy advertising jingle – that had led Mom to buy some spaghettios in the first place. So I was responsible for introducing this mushiness into our household.

My mother knew that I didn’t like them, but said nothing as she tossed the tin into the collection box we’d assembled. I think it may have been my attempt to atone for my guilt at giving something away that I didn’t really like very much that made me pick up a tin of Campbell’s Pepper Pot soup, then my favorite, and place that in the box as well. Only years later did I realize this Campbell’s product was a bastardized version of flaczki, Polish tripe soup.

My intentions in donating the soup were pure: I wanted to share something I enjoyed with some hungry child on the other side of the globe.

Alas, I didn’t know that Pepper Pot soup, with its tiny bits of tripe, would be far less palatable to the intended recipient than my loathed spaghettios. Whereas I merely didn’t fancy those, a Bengali child, if Hindu, couldn’t eat the tripe if it came from a cow, and a Muslim child had the same problem with anything that originated with a pig. My well-intended gift was unlikely to trigger anything as extreme as a similar gaffe by the British in 1857, but still.

Despite my intentions, my food donations were a bust.

Leite’s Culinaria’s Recommendations for Food Donations

I suppose I beat up on myself too severely: I wasn’t yet 10 years old when these events occurred. Yes, it was wrong to use this food drive as a means to get rid of some food that I hated; But I did know I did wrong, and attempted to make some amends, by giving up something I liked.

Which brings me now to one of the other things that inspired this post – my thoughts on a list compiled by the food and recipe website Leite’s Culinaria, Food Pantries Need Donations Now More Than Ever. As I thought about that list, I realized that the adults involved in compiling the list – writer, editor(s), didn’t do that much better than my childhood self in drafting a list that suited what the recipients may have wanted – or chosen – for themselves. Their list reflects an embedded sense that those who rely on food banks are other than the audience for their food blog.

Let me explain. I think you can guess at the type of readership anything that calls itself a ‘culinaria’  aspires to. Yet despite the pompous name, I like the site and visit it often for its reliable recipes. Founder David Leite is of Portuguese origin, and his Portuguese olive oil cake is a real winner, particularly if you up the amount of orange zest in the recipe; it can be dressed up with a bitter chocolate glaze – made by melting some bitter chocolate and thinning it with heavy cream. It’s a good cake to make for couples or small households, as it lasts for weeks without going stale. The cake is so scrumptious I bought his book, The New Portuguese Cookbook – something I often do when I find a recipe I like, to send some small compensation to the source of my pleasure.

Without further ado, the list:

Pasta sauce
Ramen (or, if it aligns more with your vibe, whole-grain pasta)
Canned tuna or chicken
Hot sauce and other condiments
Salt, pepper, and spices
Coffee and tea
Olive oil
Shelf-stable dairy
Boxed brownie or cake mix
Canned frosting
Chocolate bars

Now a couple things jumped at me, especially after I reread after I reread the accompanying text:

Pretty much anything nonperishable is welcome. Also consider the items that nonperishable packaged products require to be cooked, such as olive oil, salt, and pepper. Another thing that’s high on the list of most-coveted items is shelf-stable dairy alternatives, including oat, soy, rice, and almond milk, as well as powdered or evaporated milk. These are essential to go with all those donated boxes of breakfast cereal.

Also think beyond the essentials to things that can elevate the basics to something more satisfying. Olive oil. Spices. Hot sauce or condiments. Even a bar of chocolate, though not a necessity, can be a truly needed godsend. And a boxed brownie or cake mix and a can of frosting that needs only water may be the only means to a child having something special on a birthday.

Notice anything, particularly if I mention again that this is a food and recipe website – and not one in the style of Sandra Lee? (For those who don’t know her work, Lee pioneered the concept of semi-homemade cooking, which she describes as mixing together 70% processed foods and 30% of fresh items. Needless to say, this not a book I would buy).

In the Leite’s Culinary list, there’s also an emphasis on convenience foods – brownie and cake mixes, canned frosting and a lack of the raw materials people need to make real food: flour, sweeteners (e.g., sugar, honey, maple syrup, jams and preserves), vinegar.  Many categories are attenuated,: oatmeal, but no other grains? What about snacks other than crackers? Cookies? Even better,  dried fruit and nuts? And beverages – even allowing that food banks likely cannot accept booze donations, no matter how much their clientele might wish otherwise – canned juice, seltzer, soda, gatorade?. I’ve only devoted minutes to gaps in the list – I’m sure readers will flag other gaps in comments.

For many, their newfound dependence on food banks now is neither jaunt nor holiday, and will only get worse unless Washington gets serious about heading off what looks to be a forthcoming evictions crisis. It appears to me that the author of this list unconsciously regards those who now rely on food banks as comprising a completely different group of people than the website’s audience – few of whom would take well to being told to tear open a cake mix.

If you think I’m being too harsh,  the words of author Jenny Latrielle make clear the distance she sees exist between herself and denizens of food banks:

Chances are pretty good that those of us who rely on the recipes from this site experience hunger in a rather privileged way. And by that, we mean simply what we have the means to remedy the situation at will. Our biggest challenge, if anything, tends to be deciding what to make for dinner.

Far be it for at least some of those who rely on food banks to want – and need – the same foodstuffs in their pantries, cabinets, and fridges as those who “experience hunger in a rather privileged way”. Whatever that means. Either one is hungry, or one’s not. I think she’s trying to say that readers of Leite’s Culinaria wesite are privileged not to experience hunger at all. Because I’m scratching my head at what it might mean to experience hunger in a rather privileged way. I don’t think there’s anything privileged about being hungry.

Marcus Rashford Scores for England

Which brings me to the third topic I wanted to discuss: Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to force Boris Johnson to revamp its child hunger policy.

Our U.K. readers will be well familiar with this story. Those from elsewhere, less so.

First, who is Marcus Rashford?

He’s the Manchester United star striker and England international who forced the government to make a major policy change on its food policy, implementing a less Scroogian approach to child hunger and food poverty. Rashford’s actions earned him an MBE last year. But he has not rested on his laurels and has kept on the child hunger case, again making headlines just yesterday.

As the FT tells the story in Marcus Rashford: ‘The system is broken — and it needs to change, part of its Lunch with the FT series:

Rashford has emerged as one of the unlikely, unifying heroes of the pandemic in the UK. This summer, he launched a food poverty campaign so effective that it forced a policy U-turn from Boris Johnson, who, as per Rashford’s wishes, allocated £120m to pay for meals for impoverished children across the country. It was a stunning show of player power that Rashford repeatedly refers to as “mad”. Our lunch follows a morning spent filming a documentary across London to promote his campaign. In the afternoon, Rashford has a meeting with chief executives of major businesses to seek further support for his goals.

Rashford has not forgotten what it was like to grow up in a household where food was in short supply:

He appreciates, probably more than most Lunchers with the FT, the lavish meal we order. Rashford is the youngest of five siblings from a single-parent household in Wythenshawe, a working-class district in the south of Manchester. His mother Melanie worked in minimum-wage jobs but sometimes found it was not enough to feed the family. They occasionally visited local food banks and soup kitchens. At school, he relied on state-funded free breakfasts and lunches given to underprivileged kids. Better-off classmates helped to supplement those meals.

“I remember certain things from their packed lunches that I used to like,” he says of one childhood friend. “I don’t know why it sticks with me. It was always those little Milky Way yoghurts, I remember always asking his parents to put in one extra one, so at lunchtime, I could steal one off him.”

Note the age at which Rashford was talent-spotted, setting him on the path to Manchester United and earning caps for England:

Rashford was six and already a prodigious goalscoring talent for a local team, when he was spotted by a Manchester United scout. His mother convinced the club to accept him on to its training programme aged 10, a year earlier than most children. She argued his nutritional needs were better served by boarding at the club’s lodgings for talented youngsters. He went on to become the latest academy graduate to don the club’s famous red shirt. At 18, he scored on his debut for the senior team and would become the youngest player to score on debut for the England national side.

The pandemic was the first time in a long while that Rashford had time to reflect in depth about something other than football. What did he think about? Well, just how many kids would go hungry because with UK schools shut, they wouldn’t gets school-provided lunch? The FT has some stab at an answer: 1.3. million currently qualify for free school meals in England.

Rashford first worked with the FairShare charity, helping raise 2 million pounds to distribute 3 million meals to hungry people throughout the country.

And then he went large. Per the FT:

Rashford reckons his back-story provided the moral standing required to gain wider public support. “When it’s someone that’s been through it, people connect straight away because they know that it’s genuine,” he says. After the footballer’s idea received bipartisan support from MPs, Johnson extended the free school meals programme across the summer break.

Rashford now finds himself at the centre of a campaign against child poverty that has broadened it demands. Yet he seems far more than a mere  a figurehead, but engages with details – such as what exactly is going into those food boxes that are being distributed to hungry children.  From yesterday’s Guardian, Rashford: something ‘going wrong’ with free school meal deliveries:

Marcus Rashford has warned that “something is going wrong” with free school meal delivery during lockdown after he held talks with the school catering company at the centre of a row over inadequate free school meal (FSM) parcels.

The Manchester United footballer earlier condemned some of the free school meal packages being sent to children and families learning from home as “unacceptable” after parents posted photos on Twitter.


… the England international raised concerns about the amount of food being made available to the most vulnerable children, and called for independent businesses to mobilise to help distribute parcels.

“FSM Hampers are currently distributed to provide 10 lunch meals per child across 2 week,” the footballer posted. “This concerns me firstly as I relied on breakfast club, FSM and after-school clubs. Is 1 meal a day from Mon-Fri sufficient for children most vulnerable?”

He also condemned the lack of communication with suppliers ahead of the third national lockdown: “We MUST do better. Children shouldn’t be going hungry on the basis that we aren’t communicating or being transparent with plans. That is unacceptable.”

He concluded by tweeting: “I have a game today so have to log off but I wanted to update you on the conversation and I look forward to hearing the outcome of the DfE meeting today. @Chartwells_UK @educationgovuk.

“Something is going wrong and we need to fix it, quickly!”

Somewhat embarrassingly, one of the companies that’s part of Rashford’s child poverty campaign is the source of the skimpy food parcels:

Last month Chartwells, which is part of the giant Compass UK group, tweeted: “We are proud to be the first school caterer to join Child Food Poverty Taskforce formed by @MarcusRashford”. Its managing director, Charlie Brown, added: “Marcus Rashford’s campaign shines a much-needed spotlight on the issue of child food poverty.”

Food parcels have been sent to children who would normally qualify for free school meals and are now learning remotely during the national lockdown.

One tweet showed a package, supposedly containing the equivalent of £30 worth of food to last for 10 days, comprising just a loaf of bread, some cheese, a tin of beans, two carrots, two bananas, three apples, two potatoes, a bag of pasta, three Frubes, two Soreen bars and a tomato.

Rashford is not letting the company off the hook. He tweeted:

The UK political response has been pointed and quick. Over to the Guardian:

The children’s minister, Vicky Ford, said on Tuesday evening: “The photos being shared on social media today are completely unacceptable and do not reflect the high standard of free school meals we expect to be sent to children.

“Chartwells has rightly apologised and admitted the parcel in question was not good enough. I met their managing director earlier today and he has assured me they have taken immediate action to stop further deliveries of poor-quality parcels. They will ensure schools affected are compensated and they will provide additional food to the eligible child in line with our increased funding.”

Keir Starmer described the situation as “a disgrace”. The Labour leader tweeted: “The images appearing online of woefully inadequate free school meal parcels are a disgrace. Where is the money going? This needs sorting immediately so families don’t go hungry through lockdown.”

What about those government guidelines? I noticed they don’t rely on convenience foods. Over to the Guardian again:

The government guidelines urge schools to work with their catering teams or food provider to provide parcels to eligible pupils who are learning from home.

The guidelines state that the packages should contain food items as opposed to pre-prepared meals so parents can make healthy lunches for their children. It adds that the hampers should not rely on parents having additional ingredients at home and should cater for pupils of all diets.

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