If there’s one piece of advice people love offering up to low-income folks, it’s that you can save money by cooking at home. On the surface, that’s understandable—if you prepare your meal at home, you can (hypothetically) cook in bulk, avoid paying for a tip or delivery fee, and choose cost-effective ingredients. That’s all well and good, but it ignores structural barriers. Some people live in food deserts, for example, where ingredients are both limited and expensive. Some people have food allergies that make food even more expensive to work with. With this in mind, many people donate to food pantries and shelters around the holidays. That’s a great thing to do. If you want to go the extra mile, however, consider adding some seasonings, spices, and oils to your donation cart.
Why? Because it makes cooking a whole lot easier, more exciting, and, quite frankly, enjoyable. Food is fuel, sure, but food is also family, culture, and fun. And a little seasoning can go a long way in taking canned vegetables from begrudging to satisfying.
What kind of options might be appreciated? Salt, pepper, olive oil, and vegetable oil are some obvious staples. But don’t be afraid to add allspice, paprika, saffron, cinnamon, parsley, mint, thyme, nutmeg, cumin, basil, sage, turmeric, cayenne, dill weed, onion powder, or rosemary, for example. For related staples, when it comes to flour, for example, try adding in allergen-friendly options like almond meal or gluten-free flour. Nutritional yeast is another cooking staple for many dairy-free people that isn’t cheap but generally does last a while in the pantry. For liquids, consider shelf-stable nondairy options like rice milk, hemp milk, or oat milk. Cooking fats like sesame oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil can also go a long way.
And, to be clear, hungry people are hungry people. There’s nothing wrong with craving a dessert or wanting to make a celebratory treat for someone’s birthday or other special days. Donating baking chocolate, boxed cake mixes, chocolate chips, or nut butter like peanut, almond, or hazelnut can be great for this. Vanilla extract can be surprisingly pricey in the grocery store, but donating even a small bottle can last for many a recipe.
Especially for families with children, spices and seasonings can be important. Why? Because it can help develop a young person’s palate and widen their interest in food and preparations. While kids in wealthier homes may be introduced to a wide array of foods and flavors under the premise of trying just a bite of a new-to-them ingredient or meal, low-income families (literally) can’t afford the possibility of food waste if kids in the home balk at a new dish. But providing seasonings and spices for free at least saves the initial cost of spending a couple of dollars (if not more) on each item.
Lastly, while obviously not for humans, it’s worth finding out if your local shelter accepts pet food or supply donations. Many people love their pets like family, but pet food can be expensive. If your local donation hub accepts pet food and supplies, consider donating dry or wet food, litter, or toys for furry friends. You can contact your local shelter and likely find out what precisely they need (kitten formula versus dry food for dogs, or so on).
For far too long, capitalism has told us that low-income people should simply be grateful for oatmeal and stale bread. But in the season of giving (and frankly, all year long), we can do a small part in donating to people’s happiness and autonomy by bringing the same sort of food and ingredients we would actually buy for ourselves to those in need. Because if there’s one thing food pantries shouldn’t be, it’s a drop-off center for cleaning out the back of your pantry.