Add a little spice to someone’s life this year

The sentence has been hovering at the edge of my thoughts for weeks now. Every now and then it surfaces for no apparent reason, other than perhaps to remind me that I should do something about it.

And so, as November slides into December and the season of feasting is upon us, I shall buy spices.

Market spices.

And then I shall give them away to a food bank.

I’ve never thought of donating something like spices before. I’ve given cereal and soup, flour and sugar, even peanut butter and jam. When I lived in Metro Moncton, I dutifully handed over a frozen turkey several years in a row to the remarkable Sue Stultz and her crew of Turkey Drive volunteers.

But it never occurred to me that spices might be useful items for food bank shelves; that the clients who come, bags in hand to collect something to keep their families fed, might just appreciate a bottle of crushed chilies, a packet of curry or a few sticks of cinnamon.

I would never have come up with the idea on my own. When I think of food banks I think of staples, bland, boring but useful. Pasta is filling, spaghetti sauce easy to heat up. Rice bulks up a casserole. Jars of baby food are always in demand.

The groceries I generally give to food banks are found in the sensible centre of the grocery store, not around the perimeter where the tantalizing treats are stacked.

I suppose, if I thought of them at all, I must have categorized the clients as rather bland too, just like the food I was buying for them.  They were monochromatic, not richly hued, like cardamom and turmeric.

Imagine cooking with spices like these…and then having no access to them.

I clumped them all together simply as people who couldn’t afford to shop for groceries like the rest of us; people who had to take what was offered, not what they might be craving.  I, on the other hand, can pretty much satisfy my cravings whenever I want. I have two shelves of spices.

And then I heard an interview on the radio one morning that sprinkled the spice thought into my head. “Why doesn’t anyone ever think of giving spices to food banks?” asked the woman being interviewed.

Why ever not, I wondered myself that morning. And the thought refused to leave my brain.

As it turns out, there’s more than one reason to donate spices to food banks, as I learned after reading a recent study called Who’s Hungry, Faces of Hunger in the Greater Toronto Area. The study surveyed people who use 40 different food banks in this city.

Consider this: 51 per cent of the people frequenting food banks in Greater Toronto were born outside Canada; 20 per cent are landed immigrants; six per cent refugees. Twenty six per cent are between the ages of 45 and 64; four per cent are older than 65 years. Thirty nine per cent have children; 28 per cent are college or university educated.

If the statistics are mind numbing, let me paint the picture another way.

People using food banks may well be used to eating spicy, fragrant foods. They might have come from countries where curry is considered a meal, not a yellow spice.

People using food banks are middle aged, approaching retirement, even. They likely have habitual tastes, and might like a good cup of tea, with a ginger snap on the side before bedtime.

People using food banks have families. And individual members of families have their own favourite foods.

People using food banks have lived the university life. And while that may mean they consumed lots of beer, it may also mean they are open to trying new things, and like cooking with new recipes. Somewhere between reading Chaucer and memorizing the table of chemical elements, they might have frequented an all-you-can-eat Sushi bar, favouring the spicy dragon rolls as brain fuel.

People using food banks are diverse with broad life experiences. Providing them with familiar groceries might just ease the shame many experience each time they are forced to put their hands out for help.

There are all kinds of reasons people end up using food banks and multiple solutions that could end the need. I doubt many of those solutions will be put to into practice in the next month. But I can put something into practice this December. I can buy spices, not just for my cupboard, but for someone else’s.

Lynda MacGIbbon is a transplanted Maritimer living in Toronto. Her column appears on newsprint in the Moncton Times & Transcript each Friday. Contact her at and follow her on Twitter @lyndamacgibbon. 

5 thoughts on “Add a little spice to someone’s life this year

  1. Ha! I always think about this when repeatedly asked to give pasta and canned one thing or another . . . Don’t people using food banks want to eat anything tasty or healthy? I like this idea.

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