Coconut milk, tortellini, raw onions. These are some of the ingredients three cooks had to do without while preparing the Southeast Alaska Food Banks’ annual lunch Wednesday. For hundreds of Juneau residents, those ingredients — and even dairy and fresh vegetables — are permanently out of the question.
Each year, the food bank’s board of directors and representatives from its roughly 30 member agencies meet over lunch to discuss the previous year and future plans. Typically, they order a few pizzas for the meeting. But this year, food bank board member Karen Lawfer had a different idea.
Lawfer suggested that three Juneau chefs cook lunch using only ingredients they found at the food bank. She volunteered to be one of the chefs.
“It was no fun at all,” guest chef Randy Sutak said, referring to the ingredient list, as he stood over a pot of chili he made for lunch.
Sutak, owner of Randy’s Rib Shack, has had to cook with limited ingredients before, but back when he was younger. Now, as a successful business owner, it’s not as much as a concern. He said he “took the easy way out” Wednesday and made chili.
“But I didn’t open a single can of pre-made chili,” he noted.
Many people who shop for groceries at the food bank or its member agencies such as Resurrection Lutheran Church, where Wednesday’s lunch was held, have to rely on canned food. They don’t have many options.
“It’s really quite interesting to figure out how to feed a family with what you get from the food bank because it can go weeks without dairy, weeks without bread,” Lawfer told the Empire while setting up centerpieces — stacked cans of beans and corn — at each table. “It’s always kind of tough because if you don’t have fresh fruits and vegetables, your diet is just canned food.”
Juneau Assembly member Loren Jones was one of the three chefs who helped prepare Wednesday’s lunch. Jones was able to incorporate some fresh produce into his three dishes, but only because he got lucky.
He showed up to the food bank on Monday morning to pick up what he needed, and while he was shopping, a shipment of fresh vegetables came in.
“When I first got there, there were no fresh vegetables, no fresh onions — and onions are the base of a lot of things — no fresh or powdered garlic. I lucked out,” he said.
He made a chicken curry served with chicken liver pâté with peppers on ciabatta bread and a roasted vegetable medley. He had to improvise though because his curry called for coconut milk, which the food bank didn’t have. He used chicken broth instead.
Lawfer, who described herself as the “master of crockpot cooking,” made two pasta dishes, one of which she typically makes using tortellini. In lieu of tortellini, she used farfalle.
Though the three chefs were able to put together some pretty impressive meals considering what they were working with, not everybody who uses the food bank can do the same. As Jones pointed out, he was lucky to have access to fresh vegetables.
The food bank gave out 266,000 pounds of food during the previous fiscal year. That’s a lot of food — equivalent in weight to four humpback whales or about 76 Subaru Foresters — but there isn’t a terribly diverse selection. Much of the food given out is canned or processed.
Thanks to a new expansion, which was completed last month, the food bank now has more room to store food. This means that the selection of food could very well expand as well, according to food bank manager Darren Adams, who spoke during the Wednesday lunch.
So far, the food bank has given out 25 to 30 percent more food this year than it had at this point in 2015, and the biggest food drives of the year, which happen before Thanksgiving and Christmas have yet to happen.
“That’s a good thing for us. That’s a good thing for you. And that’s a good thing for this community,” Adams said.