The pandemic has led to a proliferation of mutual aid food banks and free fridges around the country — fridges and pantries where people can drop off food for others to pick up and use, no questions asked. Earlier this year, a screenshot from Facebook user Eric McCool, “sharing wisdom from a food bank volunteer,” made the rounds on Twitter. Among McCool’s tips: If you’re donating canned goods, make them pop tops. Peanut butter and jelly are worth nothing if you don’t have sandwich bread. But notably, “spices, salt & pepper are a real gift.”
Most food pantries prioritize staple foods that either have a long shelf life or are versatile and calorically dense, like canned vegetables and tuna, dried pasta, beans, and rice. Less frequent considerations are spices. However, they are no less essential than a can of corn. Like, sure, dried lentils boiled in water and served over rice is a hearty meal. But with no salt and pepper, no herbs, no garlic, what the hell kind of meal is that for anyone to enjoy?
It also turns out that the government thinks that people using SNAP and WIC benefits don’t deserve to add flavor or fun to a meal. Twitter user @pervocracy recently pointed out the ways the government acts on the ethos of “people shouldn’t buy junk food with benefits! but they shouldn’t have fancy food, either!”; for their purposes, spices count as “fancy.” Alaska’s WIC benefits prohibit purchasing any herbs and spices (including garlic and ginger), sharp cheddar, and any condiments. In New Jersey’s WIC benefits, individually wrapped slices of cheese are prohibited, as are “fruit-nut mixtures” and pickles. And SNAP benefits list things like honey, coffee, vanilla extract, and bouillon as “accessory foods,” and affect retailers’ abilities to be eligible to sell foods to SNAP recipients. This is often done under the guise of “health,” with the government saying they’re encouraging people, especially children, to eat fresh vegetables instead of packaged and processed foods. But unseasoned carrots aren’t going to make a vegetable lover out of anyone.
America does a great job of convincing us that being poor is the fault of the individual. If you rely on SNAP benefits or food pantries or free fridges for your food, the message is that it’s your fault, and that “beggars can’t be choosers.” Luckily, many continue to push back against that narrative, pointing out how poverty is a structural issue. Sure, dried oregano or cumin seeds are not anyone’s main source of calories. But, as should be obvious by now, food is about more than calories. It is how we connect to our bodies and our cultures, how we pass on traditions and take moments to enjoy ourselves. So if you’re a donor to your local food pantry or neighborhood free fridge, add some spices to your bag.
It’s easy to see how these additions get overlooked. You can’t make a meal out of Italian seasoning, and salt and pepper are so ubiquitous you’d think they came with every rental kitchen. But if $2 can buy two cans of black beans or one canister of red pepper flakes, most people would budget for the former. And the spices are what transform those beans from a vehicle for calories into a meal, whether it’s Cuban frijoles negros or a black bean dal.
Hopefully one day we’ll redistribute all of Jeff Bezos’s wealth and everyone will be able to afford equitably grown turmeric. But until then, it’ll be a community effort to make sure everyone is not just fed, but nourished. A meal without any seasonings — without salt — is boring as hell. So next time you’re donating to your pantry, consider spices the staples that they are.