March 11, 2010

Freeport's own IRON CHEF

— REEPORT — It's Monday, ''shopping day'' for Lindsay Sterling at the food pantry, but the pickings are lean today.

20090408_LindsaySterling
click image to enlarge

20090408_LindsaySterling

Gordon Chibroski

20090408_LindsaySterling
click image to enlarge

20090408_LindsaySterling

Gordon Chibroski

Additional Photos Below

Her eyes immediately zoom in on five bright green bunches of basil.

''I see this basil here, and I think immediately that I could probably make some pesto,'' Sterling said. ''There's lots of good leaves, right? Some of them are brown, but you just pick them off. Still smells good.''

Next to the basil is a handful of tomatoes. One has a moldy spot that can be cut off. Sterling passes on a bag of sad-looking red grapes. There's a big box of apples, but she leaves them untouched. ''I'd kind of like to leave the apples because it's convenience food naturally,'' she explained.

Sterling has become known as the ''Iron Chef'' of the Freeport food pantry, located in the Freeport Community Center on Depot Street. Every week, she takes the odds and ends she finds on the pantry's shelves and works her magic, turning it into a healthful, delicious to-go lunch that she serves up to pantry visitors.

Along with Sterling's impromptu creations, folks get a side order of cooking pointers and nutrition tips.

Sterling's weekly performance is just one ingredient in a larger stew that's now simmering at the food pantry. The staff and volunteers are working with local farmers to bring in more fresh produce and beef up nutrition education, and they have put together a plan that could become a recipe for other food pantries around the state to follow.

BUSINESS IS BRISK

The Freeport food pantry saw a 12 percent increase in visits in 2008, and the number of people using the facility is expected to rise again this year. ''We serve anybody from Freeport or Pownal who needs help, and frankly, nowadays that's a lot more people,'' said Sue Mack, director of the pantry.

But the food-pantry fare being offered to those in need is moving beyond the stereotypical cans of tuna and boxes of mac and cheese. Mack says she has noticed that more people who use the pantry are paying attention to their diets, either because they are concerned about maintaining their family's health or because they already have cancer or some other type of illness.

''Now so many more people read the labels,'' Mack said. ''A lot of people are rebelling against chemicals and additives in their food. I guess what we're trying to do here is level our playing field. Everybody should have the right to eat healthy food and not just additive-laden junk food.''

Every Monday, Hannaford sends over produce items that are no longer retail-friendly but still perfectly edible, but the quantity varies from week to week. Two local farms, Laughing Stock Farm in Freeport and Tir na nOg Farm in Pownal, also recently started sending local eggs, meats and produce, thanks largely to the efforts of pantry volunteer Elizabeth Patten. Both local farms have community-supported agriculture programs through which people can buy seasonal shares that help support the farm financially in exchange for fresh produce and other farm products.

Patten has started a new program, ''Fresh From the Pantry,'' that asks members of those CSAs to pay just a little bit more so that food pantry patrons can share in the harvest. Lisa Turner, owner of Laughing Stock Farm, offers a discount when those donations reach a full farm share, so the pantry gets more bang for each donated buck.

Turner said she is also planning to recruit her CSA members to glean her fields during the next growing season so that produce that might otherwise rot on the vine can be salvaged and donated to the food pantry.

A grant from the state's tobacco-settlement funds will help expand the Freeport program this summer and get other communities involved. Wealdon Farm and New Elm Farm will be sending food to the Freeport pantry, and Patten is looking to get community gardens involved as well. An anonymous donor in Freeport has agreed to match any donations.

Patten is writing an online manual that will show other communities how to start similar programs in their towns.

''Every community has someone who cooks, someone who volunteers and somebody who needs the resources, so it's sort of a no-brainer,'' Patten said.

Sterling didn't know about any of this when she walked into the food pantry for the first time. A trained chef, she has worked as garde manger at Fore Street in Portland and as a cook at the Harraseeket Inn. She was simply curious about what went on at the pantry, and was startled when she saw the quality of some of the fresh produce. There was a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, but some of the more unusual items -- chartreuse cauliflower, purple potatoes, papayas, mangoes -- were languishing on the shelves because people didn't know what to do with them.

Sterling visited the pantry every day for a week to get the feel of the place and how it works. Then she went to work.

SHOPPING DAY

She ''shops'' every Monday afternoon, then takes her finds home, where she can brainstorm in her own kitchen. If there's an essential ingredient that she needs to pull a dish together, she buys it with the pocket money she makes giving $10 cooking classes at the center once a month.

What happened to that chartreuse cauliflower? Sterling put it in a salad with some roasted potatoes, pulled chicken, scallions, greens and a little sour cream.

Once, Sterling found a bag of key limes on the food pantry's shelf. Figuring a family that's down on its luck probably isn't going to make a key lime pie from scratch, Sterling took them home and made a black bean-sweet potato salad with a citrus vinaigraitte.

As for those mangoes, Sterling conducted a mango tasting in which she explained how to tell if a mango is ripe, how to cut it up and how it can be used. She estimates eight people tasted mango that day for the first time.

Back to the basil. On Wednesday, Sterling shows up at the food pantry with a container of pesto she's made from the basil. She also has a container of hummus made from a gigantic can of garbanzo beans she found in the pantry. Today, she'll hand out a hummus recipe for folks who want to try it at home.

Also on the table are tomatoes, carrots, bread and a bag of greens, all from the food pantry. She's purchased some mozarella on sale with her cooking class money, and she's also used a few dollars' worth of olive oil, pine nuts, lemons and Parmesan that she already had at home.

On the menu today: pesto-mozzarella and hummus-and-farm greens sandwiches.

Dottie Deloach, a regular at Sterling's demonstrations, said she hasn't tried Sterling's recipes at home because she just cooks for one, ''but I've put things together that I might not ordinarily have done.''

''I love her stuff,'' Deloach said. ''I just love it. She can put together the most delicious sandwiches and food from what she gets at the pantry.''

Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

mgoad@pressherald.com

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

20090408_LindsaySterling
click image to enlarge

20090408_LindsaySterling

Gordon Chibroski

20090408_LindsaySterling
click image to enlarge

20090408_LindsaySterling

Gordon Chibroski

20090408_LindsaySterling
click image to enlarge

20090408_LindsaySterling

Gordon Chibroski



Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)