How to feed your family from a food bank
November 13th, 2013
12:15 PM ET
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Marisa Miller is a married mother of two who never imagined she'd find herself relying on the kindness of others to feed her family. As a former chef, her life was filled with abundant food, and her husband had a lucrative job. Between the two of them, an organic, grass-fed, sustainable and delicious life seemed assured.

But things changed. Her husband left that job to pursue a career in a field about which he was passionate, and in the height of the recession, his salary was cut by 60%. The family became food insecure in a matter of months.

Their household income is just above the qualifying levels to receive SNAP, WIC or any other kind of assistance. After bills, Miller has just $100 left over for food, gas, clothing, band-aids, toilet paper and other necessities. She supplements her grocery-buying with trips to her local Sacramento, California, food pantry and an awful lot of thoughtful, creative cooking and meal planning.

"No one is living off Top Ramen in this house," Miller told Eatocracy in an e-mail exchange.

Here's what she had to say about dignity, practicality and perception when you're struggling to feed your family.

Eatocracy: What emotional adjustment is involved in using benefits or a food bank?

Marisa Miller: The first time you wait in line at a food pantry, you tell yourself that you don’t belong there and it won’t be forever because you’re not like “those” people. You act timid and unsure and give up the extra pack of strawberries because you think that lady with the dirty clothes and her kids must need it more. Three years later you become a Terminator, take all the cauliflower you can and start coaching the new volunteers on organization and food safety.

When we first started going I took my children thinking I was giving them a life lesson. We tried a new pantry and two of my 8-year-old’s classmates were there. I think the other mom and I were both mortified, but I was proud of us for doing what we need to do to feed our families. I hadn’t considered the stigma of being a “food bank kid” though, so I go by myself on the weekend now.

Eatocracy: How much choice do people have in what their family eats when they rely on benefits or food banks?

Miller: Choices for many are also dictated by what kind of kitchen they have access to. Most of us take a car to get to the store, and the stove, refrigerator and the electricity required to run them. When we accuse people of being too lazy to take care of themselves and cook a proper meal, we assume they all have pots, pans, knives, sinks. There are people on social media who get on their high horses and call people who don’t make their own pasta “idiots”. Are you kidding me?

My children were used to eating mangoes and avocados for snacks and having unlimited access to the cupboards and refrigerator. Now there is rationing. Woe to the person who eats the last egg I was saving to add protein to the salad. I turn into Mommie Dearest within seconds now, on edge all the time, trying to be the food police.

Eatocracy: What should people who have the resources to donate to food banks take into consideration?

Miller: We are all guilty of the "pantry clean-out" method of donating. Pretend it’s your child or elderly mother that is going to eat it.

Peanut butter, peanut butter, peanut butter. It’s the one protein I can always count on to feed my kids if there is nothing else left before payday. Multigrain toast and peanut butter are so much better for you than cereal. It can go on apples, celery sticks and pretzels.

If you have a garden or fruit trees and are so inclined, pick a case and donate it. It’s not like many years ago where it has to all be non-perishable or canned.

Eatocracy: What strategies should people use for selecting food on a very limited budget or at a food bank?

Miller: Eat food with the densest nutritional quality. If you really can’t afford animal protein, learn to love brown rice and beans with a bit of meat as an ingredient instead of the outdated protein, starch, veggie image that is burned into our minds.

Know the pull days at your grocery. When things come off the shelf, they either get reduced for clearance or donated to a food pantry, senior center, etc. Be there next to the man with the scanner and ask him to hand you that sour cream he just discounted 50%.

Be okay with imperfection. Buy the bag of smushy tomatoes on clearance, find the one that needs to get tossed, rinse the rest, make sauce. Expired milk that your kids think smells funny but is only a few days off the date? That’s the time to make pancakes or waffles and have breakfast for dinner. Most bread is going to last more than a day at your house and get toasted anyway, so get the day-old bread to start with.

Most every vegetable can be turned into soup, juiced, or preserved, provided you have electricity to cook with, which, sadly, some of the nice people I meet in line, do not.

If you live in a place where there is a large supermarket chain, ask the manager which organization they donate food to and make that your primary food pantry. Trader Joe’s pulls all the expired food on Friday for the weekend so Saturday is a great day to get the strawberries for free that your neighbor just paid $3 for. Don't be ashamed; you are feeding your family.

If grocery stores are not as plentiful where you, are most food pantries will let you come weekly for bread and produce. This can be a great supplement to any benefits you may already be receiving. If there are several pantries in your area, visit them all and figure out who donates what to where. My kids eat a well-rounded diet because of this. can give you a list of local food pantries.

Eatocracy: How crucial is it for people to learn to cook?

Miller: It’s everything in this fight against hunger. You cannot sustain good health on fake food. Even if it’s only part of your diet, you must have the nutrients your brain needs or you are the battle-wounded.

The thing that we forget while we’re denigrating other people’s poor life choices, is that not everyone knows how or is physically able to get up, let alone shop for and prepare meals.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, or take more than a few minutes, but you have to kick yourself in the butt and remember that it might be easier in the short haul to open a package of something but the long term effects of poor nutrition start compounding and then it is that much harder to get motivated to feed your family the right things.

One of the reasons my family is able to remain optimistic during this tough time for us is that we stay physically fit and that helps keep us making the next right choices. Being able to nourish yourself allows you to be able to nourish others.

Eatocracy: What are a few of your go-to dishes that are nutritious, economical and satisfying?

Miller: I’m partial to dishes where meat is the condiment so I don’t stress out about who got the most/biggest/best piece. Rice stir-fries don’t have to be Asian-influenced if that’s not your thing. Brown rice tossed with a few ounces of Italian sausage, garlic, roasted vegetables (a carrot, a zucchini, a few mushrooms, a pepper) and a sprinkle of Parmesan (use the dried, powdered one) is a great meal and has every food group represented. Better for you than pasta. Tons of protein for little people.

We eat falafel every other week. Garbanzo beans are an incredible source of iron. Cut this recipe in half and feed a family of four for less than $5. Or keep it whole and have leftovers for lunch the next day. (See Miller's falafel recipe at

I cannot stress enough the value of an ethnic market. Most other cultures eat offal and other strange things because they view food as fuel and don’t want to waste a bit of it. They need to sometimes mask or enhance the taste; this is the reason Sriracha exists. Take a cue from these ancient peoples and explore all the condiments. Start with the less intense ones like pickled ginger or a different kind of vinegar.

Sauté or roast ingredients first if you are able to. If you have a tiny bit of extra money to spend, use butter instead of margarine.

Look for herbs growing wild in your neighborhood and appropriate them. If they are in someone else’s front yard, ask nicely. Very often people don’t eat the all food they grow and are happy to see it not go to waste. This is especially true of citrus trees. A little fresh lemon juice will make almost anything better. The same goes for using a pepper grinder at the end of cooking. It brightens the food.

Eatocracy: What do you wish the public understood about about people who are food insecure?

Miller: If the numbers one in four are remotely accurate, then you know these people. They teach your children, put out your fires, deliver your mail. Many of us have had salary freezes and were able to afford the same food in 2010 but three years later, our income has stayed the same while the cost of bread has doubled.

The image of Jabba the Hutt’s crew sitting on a couch playing X-Box, stuffing their faces with lobster, waiting for a handout is wrong. We are not all lazy, unmotivated or unintelligent. We are people with families trying to make it all work. Just like you.

Follow Marisa on Twitter onlyonemarisa and learn more ways to help the hungry people around you at CNN Impact Your World

Opinion: SNAP isn't about a 'free lunch'
The food stamp challenge results: eating on $30 a week
Could you live on $30 a week?
Our family will lose $44 in food stamps
5 Shocking statistics about hunger
Witnesses to Hunger: A portrait of food insecurity in America
Childhood malnutrition has long lasting effects
"A time of record need" for food insecure
Lawmakers eat on a food stamp budget
Food stamp cuts a cruel proposal

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Filed under: Charity • Favorites • Human Rights • Hunger • SNAP

soundoff (447 Responses)
  1. The Millers Tale

    Just discovered this via Linda Tirado who RTed me, followed by Marisa who RTed that. This is such a useful and moving article- full of good advice from one who has been there. The situation is similar in the UK as we head towards Winter and a time when many have to choose between feeding a family and keeping it adequately warm. They intersect too. Food is fuel.

    November 6, 2014 at 7:45 am |
  2. Candy

    I only recently discovered this essay in connection with another story. I think the author was very brave to be so honest, and I think a bit naive, but still, many good points were raised, and although some of the follow-up comments were overly snarky, again, some good points. I work in a 'boutique' food pantry in rural West Marin which serves up to 60+ families weekly, and it is a great joy to offer fresh, quality food to our community, which is 21 miles from any services: gas, groceries, medical care, Big Box retail, hardware, etc. with gas currently at $4.50 a gallon. We must all work to leave judgements at the door about the cars people drive, the price of their phones, the number of family members. Our job is to feed people, period. The intent of the pantry is to supplement a food budget, but in truth, we know for some who access our pantry, that is their only regular source of food. We have seniors, widowed or divorced with very minimal fixed incomes, ranch families where a parent may work 6 days a week, underemployed crafts workers in construction trades, medical care, business, food service, the disabled-either temporarily or permanently, etc. Some of our clients take only what they can carry because they have no transportation and one man rides his bicycle 7 miles each way with a 'milk crate' as his freight limit. A donated bungee cord allows him to tie on a larger amount of food in tote bags strapped on top; he was overjoyed last week when we had quarts of cooking oil on offer so he could saute his vegetables rather than steamed, which seems such a small thing to some, but for him, a big deal.
    My mother was a single mom, and much of this resonates for me looking at my own childhood. Yes, she had a nice, solid Chevy, which my grandparents bought to replace her (I'm dating myself here) 1956 Buick. The questionable milk reference to pancakes for dinner cracked me up. "Hey, girls–Let's have pancakes for dinner! Won't that be fun?" Translation, it's the Wed. before payday, she had 2 eggs and a stick of margarine, some milk and not much else, but we got fed, and thought it was fun. We also benefited from being near farming towns in Calif., and more than once she came home after work on a summer night with a huge bag of corn on the cob from a truck parked by the side of the road–10 ears for a dollar. Two bucks, and we would have a corn feast for dinner. Sure, low on protein, but we were fed and filled, payday came and life went on. I can't help but think what a food pantry might have done for our family, had it existed in the 1960's, but I am so grateful we have them now, and for creative people who can access them to maximize family nutrition at minimal cost when needed.
    For those who must judge others, do the math on the cost of those 1.8 oz 'energy shot' drinks you see at checkstands everywhere. Roughly speaking, it works out to something like $54 a gallon... or Star****'s Frappacino, a relative bargain at $32 a gallon.

    May 6, 2014 at 11:43 am |
  3. Mony

    Wow! Must be nice to have a food pantry like yours. Here you get to go once a month, for which you're grateful. You get boxed mac & cheese, condensed chicken noodle soup, corn flakes, mashed potato flakes, cans of beef stew or tuna, peanut butter, maybe a sleeve of crackers, bag of beans, white rice. Maybe canned corn, peas, pears or fruit cocktail. You take what you can get and be thankful you are getting that. That's also income based. It got me through some tough times.

    April 27, 2014 at 12:32 am |
    • marisab67

      I am very blessed to have gotten stuck financially, in a region that is so prolific at growing food. We are fortunate enough to be able to buy our food now, although it uses up every extra penny of my husband's increase, and makes me wonder f I shouldn't be saving some of it and still going to the pantry to get things that are going to be thrown away. I wish there was a way to get the food to more people!

      May 4, 2014 at 9:32 am |
  4. Brandi

    I know the replies have been dead for a while, but I just have to post my comments.

    Marisa, I could probably write a book of my thoughts and comments after reading everything, but I won't. I'm sure, like every other human being, you have your positive and negative sides.

    All I want to point out is this: You come across as incredibly defensive when anyone posts anything vaguely negative about you/your life. You feel the need to lash out at every negative comment and leave ugly replies. I just wanted to point out that you could have taken the high road.

    Most psychologists would point out that a response like yours may indicate you have a low self-worth. I'm not trying to be a jerk, because I don't really know you. But, if your self-worth is, in any way, tied to your financial status (and, therefore, your needing to visit a food pantry), then perhaps you shouldn't have broadcasted the information on the internet.

    March 19, 2014 at 10:05 am |
    • marisab67

      Thanks, Brandi. Believe me, if I had any idea that total strangers spent their days commenting on other people's lives, I'd have re-thought it. I was trying to help people understand food banks from a viewpoint different than that of famous chefs and pundits who always have an opinion based on nothing but what they read. I am very defensive. Taking the high road is cool. Not my thing, so much. I'm kind of a nasty See You Next Tuesday who is a heck of a chef and a great resource. Separate the two and make some soup. Cheers.

      March 26, 2014 at 12:13 pm |
    • emintey

      I think you're missing the point, this is not a gossip column, it's an informational article. The lesson here however is that revealing a little about ones life also attracts the sharks, including you like throwing chum. That is a larger lesson decent people should take away from this beyonnd the subject of the article.

      April 27, 2014 at 2:59 pm |
  5. Lydia Negron

    Good tips.

    Just came upon this article and read some of the comments and what is unfortunate are the snide, demeaning and hateful comments.

    This is an article about how to feed a family from a food bank, period.

    If the author chose to give something about her life, why bash her or her family? It wasn't the point of the article. What decisions were made and whatever reasons she gave for some of the happenings in their life were just an aside.

    So the husband left a job to pursue his passion and had the misfortune to have his salary cut by 60%? How was he to know? Does anyone here have a crystal ball?

    The point is, this lady is sharing her tips with readers. And for those who don't think she should be visiting food banks, try to walk in her shoes if you are the least bit human.

    Incidentally while I am fortunate not to have need of a food bank, I know quite a few people who are in dire financial circumstances through no fault of their own that must rely on government assistance. Some have been homeless because rents are so high, they can't afford them. All want to work but there are no jobs or the jobs that are out there are all minimum paying jobs with no benefits.

    They walk to whereever they need to because they can't afford a car much less the gas needed to run them. Their needs are few. There are no dates, no extra clothes, no vacations, no concerts, museums or any place it costs to enter.

    So for those who spew their venom, thank whatever supreme being you haven't been hit with some disease or your employer hasn't downsized or your 401k wasn't pilfered by a Bernie Madoff type.

    And please, crawl back into the hole you came from.

    January 30, 2014 at 7:15 pm |
  6. ellen

    my family and i happen to prefer frozen vegetables, so when canned veggies are on sale i would buy a bunch and donate them to the food shelf. same holds true for other foods that are perfectly acceptable and healthy. just because my family happens to prefer something else doesn't mean someone wouldn't like them. then i got smart and started donating cash so the food shelf could buy what they need and get $10 worth of product for every dollar i donate. i made an exception once when i was volunteering and our shelves were practically empty. i left in the middle of the shift went to the store and came back with a case of soup,a case of baked beans and a 25 pound bag of rice, all of which was "a drop in the bucket", but at least it was something. I don't think our guests are happy about having to be there but are extremely happy that we are there, and hoping to be back on their feet soon. unless a guest chooses to tell the volunteers why (s)he is there we don't question them, but respect their privacy. i agree it would be helpful to have some nutritional information and basic recipes using what's available at the food shelf to hand out to the guests. that still wouldn't help some of them as they might not have a kitchen, and maybe not even basic things like a can opener or a pan to cook something in. obviously they are going to pick things that can be opened and eaten without implements. the poor we will always have with us and those of us who can should do something to help instead of criticizing them. we could all work for income equity as a means of helping to elevate people out of poverty. that still wouldn't eliminate poverty, because the infirm, invalids, and others would still need help. but there would be fewer needing help and more who might be able to help. think about how you could help before criticizing those who need your help. ok–sermon over.

    December 17, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
  7. vera

    Kat Kinsman (author of this post) doesn't seem to understand why there are so many negative comments about Marisa Miller. Maybe I can help. I have read every comment here and looked at Miller's blog and twitter account. I was intrigued by her repeated mentions of her husband's aunt, Oscar-winning actress Virginia Madsen. Not what you'd expect when reading an article about hunger in America, especially when Ms. Madsen is being cited as the cause for the family's visits to the "hog trough". Such material is expected in the National Enquirer, not a food blog.

    There's a legitimate human interest story here: Marisa claims she once worked as a live-in cook at the Malibu Beach house of Frank Sinatra's widow. Her husband is closely related to a Hollywood celebrity and once had an income of $100,000 which he walked away from for idealist reasons. Marisa chooses to be a SAHM in spite of the fact that she considers herself to be a talented chef with impressive credentials (re: Sinatra). They struggle to accept a lower standard of living and visit food pantries looking for items which measure up to their former high standards.

    It's an interesting story, but what does this have to do with the plight of the truly needy – the ones who spend most of their lives dealing with what seems like inescapable poverty; the ones who won't ever walk away from a pack of ramen noodles or "pantry cast-offs" because it's food that will fill hungry bellies. It seems as if you're trying to hold this woman up as a poster child for hunger in the US when clearly she is not.

    Kinsman said in Miller's defense that what happened to her could happen to anyone. You mean blaming a famous actress for a $500 car payment? Walking away from a $100,000 job? Choosing to be a SAHM when you have a marketable skill, even if it means you can barely feed your family? No – that's not going to happen to your average person. Now do you understand?

    And FYI – I was once so poor I couldn't afford to feed both my daughter and myself so I went hungry so she would have enough. It's a long story with a happy ending brought about by hard work, so don't accuse me of not knowing what it's like or being a judgmental troll. Not true.

    November 30, 2013 at 2:40 am |
    • vera

      I forgot to mention a very significant way that Marisa is not like the average person visiting food pantries – they have a 401K they could use for their immediate food needs but choose not to. How many people standing in line with them have that option? Maybe it is a wise decision not to break into their nest egg but don't pretend that they are experiencing the same level of need as others; they aren't. Marisa believes this is a passing phase of her life; I hope she's right. This will make a good story to tell some day at parties. Many others would give anything to be able to say that.

      November 30, 2013 at 3:08 am |
      • marisab67

        Do you know me, Vera? If you do, then you know what a See You Next Tuesday his aunt is, all about our lives and what jackholes my in-laws have been to me for the past 10 years. You should need no clarification. If you DON'T know me, then you stating what I do and don't choose without any other information than what you could glean from my blog and Twitter, is laughable and pointless. Thanks for playing, Vera.

        December 2, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
        • Sapphire

          "...without any other information than what you could glean from my blog and Twitter, is laughable and pointless. Thanks for playing, Vera."

          Have you considered that your blog & Twit accounts are misleading? One of the reasons for such forms of communication is to put the face "out there" that you want people to see. If people like Vera have you pegged so wrong after reading these forums, then the one who is making you seem "laughable and pointless" is you. Thanks for playing marisa.

          December 2, 2013 at 12:53 pm |
    • marisab67

      The car story is very long and involved and our 401k is small and not fully vested. If you would like further clarification you can email @ marisab67@gmail and I will go point by point through my finances with you. It clearly interests you as it is what yo chose to focus on. The point of the article was to give people some tips, not to be an expose on the poor. Did you learn anything or just read the comments? I've lived in my car and have to defecate in the street with nowhere to go. Had our electricity turned off last week a day before payday b/c PG& E wouldn't wait. Wanna keep running your mouth about my life Vera? Let's do.

      December 1, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
      • Marisa Miller

        hey sapphire. most of those posts are two years old or older and my twitter is not misleading at all. Vera seem to have some inside information on all of my choices
        and I was explaining to her that there were many other parts of my personality that are not covered in one hundred and forty characters. she did not choose to email me with her questions about the car payment so I assume she really did not care about the article the way I assume that you don't really care about the article either.. love n kisses

        December 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm |
    • Angela

      Thank God your story had A happy ending.

      March 28, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
  8. jason

    How do I get food today?

    November 27, 2013 at 10:19 am |
  9. neepsandtats

    This is hands-down one of the most valuable, informative, and motivating posts I've ever read on CNN. Thank you for posting this – the timing and the content couldn't be better.

    November 20, 2013 at 8:40 am |
    • marisab67

      Thanks, Mom. Seriously, I appreciate you appreciating it. My blog is going to start featuring recipes that can be made from what some would consider to be the scraps. Hope they help as well!

      November 20, 2013 at 10:06 am |
    • marisab67

      Thanks, Mom. Seriously, though, thank you. I am going to start posting recipes that can be made from what many consider to be scraps. I hope they help as well.

      November 20, 2013 at 10:08 am |
  10. Beatrix

    For "Truth@K: "It's important to know that words don't move mountains. Work, exacting work moves mountains."

    Danilo Dolci

    November 19, 2013 at 7:39 pm |
  11. Edwin

    marisab67, would you mind maybe posting some of the recipes you've been able to come up with? I'd be interested to know what you're able to do with what you get from the food bank.

    November 18, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
    • marisab67

      HI Edwin, I just put one on my blog for lentils, greens and ham hocks. Feeds for for about $2 if you have some donated produce, $4 if you don't. There are other recipes there that are pretty inexpensive although most of the posts were written pre-food bank. Thanks for your interest :)

      November 19, 2013 at 10:39 am |
      • Thinking things through


        November 19, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
      • Ed

        I couldn't find this post for a long time...I had thought it was deleted!

        Thank you for the reply marisa I'll be sure to check it out.

        December 2, 2013 at 7:22 pm |
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