The cheapest food with the longest shelf life is often the least healthy — a challenge for the Community Food Bank in Tucson, which gives out 25,000 boxes per month to Southern Arizona families.
The Arizona Daily Star asked registered dietitian Nancy Rogers, a nutrition and fitness counselor at the University of Arizona, about the nutritional value in a typical box from the food bank and to offer suggestions about how families can supplement its contents inexpensively for maximum nutritional value.
Each food box is intended to feed a family of three or more for three to four days. Here’s what one includes:
• Two 18-ounce boxes of corn flakes
• Two 1-pound bags of Gulf Pacific enriched long grain rice
• Two 7.25-ounce boxes of Our Specialty macaroni and cheese dinner
• Two 25.6-ounce bags of Mountain Maid instant nonfat dry milk fortified with vitamins A & D
• Two 16-ounce jars of Algood creamy peanut butter spread
• Four 14.5-ounce cans of Double Luck mixture of short cut and blue lake green beans
• One 2-pound bag of dried Brown's Best great northern beans
• One 1-pound can of Lakeside Foods' pork with juices
• Two 14.5-ounce cans of Paradiso diced tomatoes in tomato juice
• Two 15-ounce cans of Mother's Maid unsweetened applesauce
• Two 10 »-ounce cans of Venice Maid Foods condensed tomato soup
• One 64-fluid-ounce jug of Cal-Maid 100 percent unsweetened orange juice from concentrate
Rice: They are using a long grain white rice, so the outside bran and the germ of the rice has been removed. It's just the starchy endosperm that’s left. They do enrich it; they’ve added back some of the B vitamins and iron. But you can’t add back the dietary fiber. The good thing about this is, the shelf life is really long. It doesn’t have the oil in it, so it’s not going to go rancid.
Corn flakes: The sugar is low, so that is a good thing. But it’s not that high in protein and there’s no fiber — less than 1 gram. One of the main reasons you are eating grains is for dietary fiber as well as the carbohydrate that provides calories you need for energy. It is enriched; they’ve added back some of the B vitamins and iron. Oatmeal (is) higher in fiber and protein. Or some of the granolas that use an oat base, depending on the sugar content. With the cereal they are going to be using milk, which is important for the calcium content.
Milk: They are using a nonfat dry milk, which, if you use really, really cold water and mix it up ahead of time, is not bad. You can add the dry powder to mashed potatoes (or) hot oatmeal to have a little extra protein and to the tomato soup. There's no fat, no saturated fat. From a heart-healthy perspective that's a good thing. It's going to have a long shelf life. Good protein, good calcium. It’s just dehydrated milk; there are no preservatives. It’s actually a very good food product.
Macaroni and cheese: It’s a white pasta, so it doesn’t have much dietary fiber. The sodium is high. If you prepare it, you are getting 30 percent of your daily sodium in probably what would be a half-cup serving. So if you eat the box you are getting about as much sodium as you need in a day. You could add less butter or margarine and more of the skim-milk powder (or) add some green beans, and that would add fiber and a vegetable.
Beans: These will keep for a long time on the shelf. They are low in calories, high in dietary fiber. There’s no sodium, no sugar. It’s just a really good food. If you add beans to the white rice, you can add tomatoes and make a Spanish rice.
Peanut butter: It’s another good plant-based protein source. If you can get peanut butter that's just peanuts and maybe a little added salt, that's going to be more like the ideal. But again, it’s going to cost more. It’s low fiber, it’s protein. You don’t have to refrigerate this once it’s open, so the shelf life is really good.
Pork: Add some of the canned tomatoes and the rice, you could make a pretty decent casserole-type dish. This is a good protein source. The fat really is not too bad — 3 grams per quarter-cup serving. The sodium isn’t that high. You can put this on the shelf and it will keep.
Tomato soup: There’s a little bit of vitamin C. There's not much salt. There’s some tomato puree, but you don’t have any fiber. If you mix it with the nonfat dry milk you are going to get more nutrition from the milk than from the soup itself.
Canned green beans and canned tomatoes: The bright green and bright red are good. You want a variety of different vegetables, different colors. The bottom line is to get a variety of vegetables and fruits using all the different colors. Obviously, with canned you are going to have a better shelf life, so that’s a good idea for a food box. You want two to three cups of vegetables in a day. With these canned vegetables, you are getting a lot of sodium. The tomatoes are a little less. The thing to do is don’t salt your canned vegetables when you have them at the table. No-salt green beans would have been a better choice.
Applesauce: This is good. They are using unsweetened. It’s just apples and water, a little bit of vitamin C they add. So this is great, it’s just the fruit. That would be a good choice. If people can get used to eating the flavor of the food, you could use this as a dessert. With a little cinnamon or nutmeg on it, this is a good dessert. Some people also use applesauce with pork. That’s a good combination.
Orange juice: It’s 100 percent juice, it’s unsweetened. So all you have here is orange juice. If you can eat the whole fruit instead of juice, that’s probably a better choice.
Overall: They’ve got all the food groups represented, and there’s nothing junky. You could take these foods and buy some carrots and onions, and green chile. Add a salad, some cabbage. That would help to round it out. Make a circle, with half your plate being a vegetable or fruit.