Week 25: I will audit the store cupboard.
If this week's change was a movie, I think I would call it: No Lentil Left behind.
It would be the story of one packet of lentils, that was full of hope after being brought back from the supermarket shelf with a head full of dreams. Dreams of bolstering soups, adding body to curries, giving zing to samosas. But that ended up at the back of the cupboard, forgotten and alone, and gradually buried under packets of rice and behind tins of tomatoes. A pack of lentils, that watched helplessly as it's nemesis, the chickpea, enjoyed day and after day in the hummus-drenched sun. A lentils fight to be included in a meal. Any meal.
It is flippant, but this is not far off what happens in our house. Our store cupboard is the home of great intentions, that were never quite achieved. We fill our weekly shop with new fresh produce, because we are conditioned or in the habit that the priority order of meals begins with a showpiece ingredient such as a meat, fish or glamorous vegetable, and then others fall into place around it.
We are also perpetually short of time, and so we tend to fall back to familiar patterns. Chicken and this, something-on-it salmon. Even our recently introduced vegan meals are planned around buying something new at the centre, more than they are about hunting out the old as anything but a side dish. Our days that we try to use up waste focus on the fresh drawer, with the assumption that anything in a cupboard has a shelf life longer than uranium.
With no disrespect to the lentil, it is not considered in our planning to be a showpiece ingredient, but it is also not alone in our cupboard in the genre of unfashionable ingredients. Gradually, certain food items disappear to the back of the cupboard, to be found with regret a few years later when we get around to a re-organisation. When we shop, we don't pay enough attention to the corners of the cupboard, and can unintentionally stockpile tinned sweetcorn or fish over several weeks before we realise. We promise ourselves that it will never happen again, and then blink and history has repeated, as we end up in the same cycle and with the same disbelief that we bought those peaches three years ago.
This week's permanent change, is therefore in part resourcefulness, and in part respect. When we made the permanent change to be more resourceful in week 19, we solved part of the problem in the sense that we dramatically reduced the food that we wasted from our fresh cupboards. And when we changed to more plant-based eating in week 8, we understood more about how we could use more varied ingredients to reduce our overall consumption of commoditised foods.
Yet, even if we know that what is in the cupboard or the fridge is well sourced, or more based around plants or non-commoditised meat, if we don't use it, then it is still a waste. If we don't eat the lentils because we don't know how to soak them, then we are not consuming more plant based meals, we are just pretending. If we didn't buy the tinned tomatoes in the first place because we don't need them, then we would not need to be resourceful.
It is time to tighten these planetwise changes a bit more, and so this week our project is a spin off of these, and is to begin the habit of regular store cupboard auditing.
Even if this kind of change is a planetwise choice at any time, right now it is even more relevant, because at the moment food banks and community schemes are being stretched in ways they have not experienced before.
With the more vulnerable in society beginning and continuing to need services such as this, and with additional hardships in communities caused by staff being furloughed or laid off during the coronavirus restrictions, the items that lie dusty in our cupboards are the very items that food banks and schemes like it really need. The majority of a standard Trussell Trust food parcel includes familiar items that we will recognise from our own cupboards, and the overwhelming majority of donations comes from members of the public.
Therefore, if more people need assistance from food banks, and if there less people moving around and able to donate, it puts a double strain on the demand for food, and the the supply of donations. And if in addition, we all purchased a few additional tinned or long-life items for ourselves or our families back in March that we didn't really need, then we have been adding to the problem. It was understandable behaviour, because our natural human instinct is to protect ourselves and our own, but it is now also time to admit that our perception of low food supplies in regular supermarkets and stores was exaggerated.
Therefore it feels like a good time in our house, to simply empty out our store cupboards and start to be honest with ourselves about what is in there. To make visible what we have, and make some decisions about what we can do with the products in there right now, and our choices in the future. To face the fact that we often make impulsive decisions, either out of good intention, whimsy, or because were were caught up in a wave of trend or panic.
When I started to research how we might go about this, I was surprised to find that there are existing templates tools available to help with this. I have to admit that I thought I had made this idea up myself, but of course others who have been making good sustainable decisions for much longer than us, and have already created and refined techniques such as this before. With a quick search you can find solutions from templates to fill out (https://www.showmesuburban.com/simple-pantry-inventory/), to applications for your smartphone. There is even a Pinterest page dedicated to pantry inventories.
I'm excited to try some of these, but in the first instance our approach had much less science and thought. It was no more complicated than basically emptying everything out and unloading it onto the table. But it was also definitive and severe. It was not just glancing in the cupboard and making a few choices based on what was at eye level or was at the front. It was an all-corner, all-item unloading, and it took a good ten minutes to get everything out.
We then divided everything into four piles, and grudgingly a pile for composting or the bin.
The first pile were items that we use regularly, and therefore could go straight back into the cupboard. This is stuff like pasta, rice, kidney beans, and anything that we know turn over regularly and are therefore in no danger of expiring before we use them. We all have these in our repertoire - those dishes that we go-to as batch meals, and that don't spend too long in the freezer before you need to do them again. The only twist we applied here, was that if we had more than two of anything, then the balance was placed into the bag to immediately be taken to a food bank.
The second pile, was the items that are either reaching the end of their shelf lives, and that we think we can and will create meals from, with some thought and consideration. We have created a list of these, with expiry dates, and we have committed as a family, to work through these items with imagination, and to make it fun. These were characterised by items that needed some preparation before use, such as our friend the dried lentil, or items that we might have bought in the past with a particular weekend treat in mind, only to reach for the take-out menu once faced with the time and commitment of preparation. Items such as that packet of katsu curry paste, that although we think is hard, can probably be prepared in the same time it takes to phone in an order of katsu curry, and go pick it up.
The third pile, was intended to be an honesty pile. The pile that we have to admit to ourselves, were mistaken purchases. If we are honest with ourselves, these are items that we do not think we will use. For me, they are things that I wish I loved, but I don't. Tinned fruit definitely goes into this pile for me, along with certain bean medleys. This was the hardest pile, because to admit this is to admit that we can be gluttonous individuals, who have become spoiled by the choices we have.
If you are hungry, this pile might make you angry, and you would be right. We should not have purchased them on a whim, and without a plan. We are impulsive humans, and sometimes we act without real logic or even understanding in what we are doing. However, if this pile can immediately go to the local food bank, then we have at least made some amends. The only condition is that the product must be something that a food bank would appreciate and be able to make use from. Otherwise, it should go back to the previous pile, and we should find a way that we consume it ourselves, in a responsible fashion.
The fourth pile, was a planetwise pile. We used this opportunity to also consider what products we might want to consider using less or consider alternatives for, based on sourcing, packaging, or other considerations related to what they were or how they were produced. It is an exercise in reading labels, which is something that we don't do enough on cupboard products. It is considerations such as the fact that some pre-packaged products can be bought loose, to save on film packaging that is not yet recycled. It is a consideration of what pulses you might be buying, and whether there might be more local or more sustainable alternatives that can provide the same sustenance.
The result, was cathartic but surprisingly quick and easy. It took about twenty minutes, and although there were six things that were years out of date, the biggest piles were the items that we will use immediately, or with some imagination. Perhaps the last few weeks has helped this, as we have been regularly picking a few items to donate, or perhaps all of our perceptions of our store cupboards is a bit harsh. You would always hope that if something had several years of shelf life on it, then it would get used eventually, and for us it does appear to be the case. However, we did get a reasonable pile of donations, and have eight items that we can make meals from that might have gone out of date otherwise.
It also exposed some habits of stockpiling ourselves. Weird stuff such as poppy seeds, and pine nuts. Plus we made a note that based on what we have, even though we have donated some, we probably never ever have to buy a bag of bulgar wheat again.
I can recommend that we all do this right now, because I believe that if we did, we could go a long way to removing the supply issues and the strain on our food banks. The items that food banks need right now, are not just going to be fulfilled from corporate donations or supermarket schemes. They do not have to be solved through financial donations. They can be solved from our own cupboards, and pantries, without us even noticing. Ninety percent of food bank donations come from the general public, from you and I and from others like us who might have more in the cupboards than we need. We are all connected, and if you think just a few tins does not make a difference, then consider this effort multiplied by hundreds, or thousands of households.
Food banks, are also more accessible than you might think. There are three Trussell Trust food banks within a few minutes drive of us, which means your own local one can be found on their website by entering your postcode (https://www.trusselltrust.org/get-involved/ways-to-give/donate-food/), but also this is not the only organisation. There is a good chance that your local church, your local supermarket, or your local convenience store takes donations, which means the nearest food bank could just be a stroll away. In addition to this, it is likely that you can find a local food bank through social media, with the additional benefit that social media feeds from food banks may also tell you what is running low locally each week.
Our little changes do have an impact directly, they have an impact attitudinally, and ideologically. This is something we can all do right now, but in the end cannot just be a 'right now' activity. The pressure is not going to go away, and long after many of us might have returned to some kind of normality, many will not. This needs to become an 'and' in our lives. We need to donate now, and in the future. We need to audit our cupboards now, and every month or few months. We need to keep dropping an extra item in our shopping baskets now, and continue to do it when we can.
If we cannot donate regularly, there are also other, creative ways of helping right now. Thinking about when we shop, is one of those. Avoiding the end of the month, so that those who might be vulnerable or living on a budget, can shop without the anxiety of unavailable staple goods. This is something that perhaps we all cannot all do all the time, because we all have our individual pressures. But if we can then we should.
For us as a family, this planetwise habit of performing a cupboard audit, feels like a change that can become a habit. And as with all stories, even this one can have a happy ending. We found an unopened bag of lentils and have put it in the bag to donate next week to the food bank.
So if our hero is looking for purpose in life, then feeding someone who is hungry is a far better outcome than feeding me.