A crowd gathered for the cook off. (Photo by David Biernesser)

A meal of canned vegetables, peanut butter and jelly, canned tuna, pasta and boxed milk probably doesn’t sound too appetizing.

But that’s exactly what chefs from seven local restaurants were challenged to create this Saturday by the Northside Common Ministries’ Food Pantry at a fundraiser hosted by Bistro to Go on East Ohio Street.

Northside Common Ministries, which operates the city’s largest food pantry, provides food assistance to over 900 families and individuals every month.

“Donations have remained the same, but demand has risen 30 percent,” says Director of Northside Common Ministries\ Jay Poliziani.

The event on Saturday was designed to raise money for Northside Common Ministries while promoting their new program, Cooking Well with Cans, which seeks to educate clients about healthy ways to cook canned goods and other food items typically found in the food pantry.

The chefs from food vendors like Giant Eagle Market District, James Street Gastropub, Springboard Kitchen and the Big Y Restaurant Group were given a list of foods normally found on the pantry shelves — ranging from canned tomato sauce and boxed potatoes to seasonal items like pumpkin or cranberry sauce — to create a brunch item using those foods. The transformation was dramatic.

Visitors grazed on dishes of lemon pepper chicken, stuffed olives, apricot bread pudding and Swedish pumpkin cakes with apple syrup before voting on their favorites.

Layla Assaf, newly appointed dietitian technician and nutrition educator for the food pantry, handed out pamphlets with titles like “Why it is Important to Rinse Your Canned Foods,” “Disadvantages of Frying” and “Health Benefits of Grilling.”

Assaf’s position as dietician and educator is one of the recent additions to the food pantry following a $25,000 Walmart Foundation grant last December.

Clients are hesitant to discuss healthy cooking methods at first, Assaf said, but after one or two appointments are often more receptive to her suggestions. She emphasized the importance of providing tips that clients can actually use, such as rinsing canned items to reduce sodium or choosing margarine over butter and shortening.

Above all, Assaf stressed simplicity and a desire to create healthy food options that were accessible and practical for the food pantry’s clientele.

Visitors to the Northside Common Ministries’ event seemed to echo this sentiment and when the votes were totaled on Saturday evening, Thai Me Up’s simple dish made from rice, coconut milk and mango took the prize over menu items like Crunchy Cinnamon French Toast and Breakfast Strata with Oven Roasted Tomatoes.