LOWELL — Pepper flakes and saffron weren’t available on the shelves at the Downton Lowell Market Basket on Saturday. State Rep. Vanna Howard thinks that’s because people bought out the stock to bring to the spice drive she held for Coalition for a Better Acre’s food pantry a few blocks away.
“At least 200 people showed up to donate,” Howard marveled. “We had huge donations of spices – pepper flakes, saffron, garlic powder, ginger, oregano, salt and pepper, cinnamon, cumin, cardamom, soy sauce, fish sauce – you name it. People even brought vanilla extract which was a huge hit, too. It was unbelievable.”
Within three hours that morning, the first-ever spice drive for the fledgling food pantry collected close to 1,500 pounds of spices, cooking oil and butter, which Executive Director Yun-Ju Choi said will help expand the available inventory.
“It was an amazing to see how many people came to support our pantry and Rep. Howard,” Choi said. “CBA works hard to have a culturally friendly panty, and we are going to have a lot of happy faces at the pantry this week.”
Howard has been volunteering in food pantries in Lowell and across the Merrimack Valley for several years, and the one thing she said she heard over and over from clients was, “do you have any spices?”
Howard took that question to Choi. Lowell is home to a rich mix of cultures and communities, which Howard said depend on an equally diverse collection of cooking ingredients, many of which can be expensive to source.
“CBA’s food pantry is still new, they’ve only been doing this for about a year,” Howard said. “We decided to hold a food drive of the most requested items. And we both thought, ‘let’s do spices!’”
She said the top two donations to the drive were cooking oil and butter, which are used in many cross-cultural recipes from egg rolls to fried chicken and fried plantains.
“Improving access to cooking spices helps food recipients maintain their cultural identity, uphold family traditions and encourages creative and nutritious cooking,” Howard noted.
Cambodian Mutual Assistance Association Board President Vannak Theng and Bopha Boutselis, both of Lowell, arrived with bags of donations.
But donations also came in from Westford. The students at Nashoba Valley Technical High School’s Culture and Community Club contacted Howard about pitching in. The newly formed club was looking for a service project.
“They were looking for something with cultural and community aspects,” Howard said, who drove up Friday afternoon to retrieve three huge boxes packed with spices collected from the community.
“They collected more than 100 spice and cooking oil items,” Howard said. “It’s great for the students to be involved and engaged in this. They said they had so much fun collecting those spices.”
Tewksbury Carnation, the local newspaper, hosted a pop-up collection site on Friday.
“Team Carnation and friends will pack up donations and deliver them on Saturday to our neighbors in Lowell and the Tewksbury Community Pantry,” the paper posted on its website.
“There was an outpouring of support,” Howard said. “And everyone told us, ‘you need to do this again.’”
Howard plans on running more events to support local food pantries, but reminds residents that donations can be dropped off at any time, most days of the week at area pantries.
“Our local food pantries and across the Merrimack Valley are amazing, and do incredible work day-in and day-out,” she said. “I’m just playing a small part, here.”