How a St. Louis Spice Drive Offers Refugees a Taste of Home | Civil Eats

How a St. Louis Spice Drive Offers Refugees a Taste of Home

Food banks, food drives, and other mutual aid resources have long provided much-needed nonperishable goods for food-insecure newcomers to the U.S., but spices often slip under the radar. This effort adds spices to the offerings.

Before he became one of the hundreds of Afghan newcomers to be resettled in St. Louis last year, Hedayatullah Loodin was used to preparing meals with a variety of spices: cumin, black pepper, chili powder, turmeric, paprika, cardamom, saffron, parsley and garlic powder, to name a few.

The 30-year-old says these spices help him feel connected to his roots whenever he makes traditional Afghan food, including stews, rice, kabab, dumplings called Mantu and Ashak, or Bolani, a vegetable-stuffed flatbread. But spices are expensive, and Loodin’s small food budget has often meant he must cook without them. And he’s not alone.

“With them coming to a new country, as unknown and as scary as it can be, we’re thinking, ‘What’s a good way to get folks settled in and acclimated with something familiar?’”

Food banks, food drives, and other mutual aid-type resources have long provided much-needed nonperishable foods like pasta, rice, and beans for newcomers to the U.S. But spices—the ingredients that provide heat, flavor and familiarity to a meal—often slip under the radar.

To address this gap, the International Institute of St. Louis—a local organization working with immigrants and refugees—is joining local grocer Global Foods Market to host its second annual spice drive for those facing food insecurity.

For the next month, shoppers can purchase spices from Global Foods Market or United Provisions, another international grocer, to donate to the drive and the two retailers will match the donations.

“This year, we hope to meet or exceed the community excitement that we received in our first year,” says Shayn Prapaisilp, chief operating officer of Global Foods Group. “We’re hopeful this will continue every year and benefit those in need.”

Last year’s drive collected nearly 30 pounds of spices. With the matching donations, a total of 600 jars of spices were given to people facing food insecurity through the St. Louis Area Foodbank and the International Institute of St. Louis.

From left: Suchin Prapaisilp, Owner of Global Foods Market, and Shayn Prapaisilp, Chief Operating Officer of Global Foods Group. (Photo courtesy of Global Foods Group)

From left: Suchin Prapaisilp, Owner of Global Foods Market, and Shayn Prapaisilp, Chief Operating Officer of Global Foods Group. (Photo courtesy of Global Foods Group)

In other parts of the country, local hunger organizations are also focusing more on spices. Food banks and pantries in Seattle, Tacoma,  Boston, and Dover-Foxcroft, Maine, have all hosted spice drives in recent years. The drives align with the height of the giving season. Food pantry donations are at their highest in November and December, but spice donations are rare, so the folks behind these international organizations decided to pair the drive with the most popular season of food pantry donations. Their goal was to ensure that people receiving cans of beans or tuna could add more flavor to their meals and, in cases like Loodin’s, feel an added connection to their homes.

“We have access to all these spices and seasonings that a lot of folks in [other regions] of the world are used to and cook with,” says Prapaisilp. “With them coming to a new country, as unknown and as scary as it can be, we’re thinking, ‘What’s a good way to get folks settled in and acclimated with something familiar?’”

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Prapaisilp says Afghan newcomers to the U.S. receive housing, food, and other necessities, but in general, spices are not a part of the relocation benefits. Food, he says, can evoke memories, and that’s one reason why it was so instrumental to help connect people in a new country to a part of their past.

“Yes, they were going to be fed when they got over here,” he says. “But if you’re eating food that you’re not familiar with, or you’re not sure what it is, it’s less nourishing in a way. We were able to provide a taste of Afghanistan. And we hoped that it made the transition a little bit easier.”

Some of the many spices collected during the 2021 spice drive in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Global Foods Group)

Some of the many spices collected during the 2021 spice drive in St. Louis. (Photo courtesy of Global Foods Group)

How a Spice Drive Connected a New Community

Spogmai Hashmi is a former refugee from Afghanistan who works at the International Institute of St. Louis. She has been an employee for more than 20 years and oversees the Matching Grant Program. Matching Grant is a work-incentive program developed to lend financial support and help refugees arriving in the St. Louis area find work. This support comes in the way of rent assistance and other necessities.

Hashmi helped deliver and distribute the spices directly to her clients in 2021 and she says they have been asking for more ever since.

“If you cook vegetables without spice, no one wants to eat them, but if you add the spice the kids love [the] vegetable dishes, [especially] when the meat is very expensive,” says Hashmi. “People in Afghanistan cook delicious dishes with vegetables by adding spice.”

She adds that, in Afghanistan, people typically buy large quantities of spices and grind them up themselves at home.

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Prapaisilp says the St. Louis community came together and showed their generosity last year, and he hopes for a similar showing during this year’s spice drive, which began on November 10.

“Food tastes better with culturally familiar spices and seasoning. Many people don’t naturally consider spices, seasoning, or condiments when thinking about basic necessities.”

“Folks were there, asking, ‘[is this a spice] these folks want?’ So they were really conscious, trying to learn about Afghans’ food culture, and making sure they were buying the right things,” he says.

Kelly Moore, spokesperson for the International Institute of St. Louis, says last year’s drive gave community members a better understanding of how small acts of generosity can affect others. “I think this does open up their eyes to all the different types of neighbors living in the community,” she adds.

A Growing Interest in Giving Away Spices

Michelle Ness, executive director of PRISM Food Shelf in Minnesota, ran a spice drive in February 2022. She says spices can be crucial in helping connect people with quality food cooked from scratch.

“A spice drive moves people from thinking about what to do with cans of sodium-filled soup to providing the tools for delicious recipes and comforting meals,” she says. “Food tastes better with culturally familiar spices and seasoning. Many people don’t naturally consider spices, seasoning, or condiments when thinking about basic necessities.”

Food is the most fundamental human need—providing nourishment, nutrients, and a morale boost, Ness adds. The drive she ran involved buying bulk spices and distributing them to food pantry clients in hand-packed plastic bags.

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“We know that when you feel good, you can better navigate life’s challenges and opportunities,” she adds. “Eating together allows for community and family to experience the joy of human connection and nourishment for the body. Immigrants and refugees need this as much, and perhaps more, than anyone as they create their new norms in America.”

Kristi Eaton is an Oklahoma-based freelance journalist who has written for The Associated Press, The Washington Post, NBC News, The Guardian, and others. She has spent the past few years focusing on women in the criminal justice system in Oklahoma. Read more >

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  1. S
    Such a terrific idea.

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