A Guide to Food Bank Giving

During the holidays, many people are thinking of ways to give back to their local community. While they prepare Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, they reflect on those who don’t have enough to eat and decide that they would like to donate to the local food pantry. As a veteran of a couple of food drives at work, here’s the Will Bike for Change (or Pie!) Guide to Food Bank Giving.

1) Give money. Seriously. According to food banks themselves (including one of my favorites, local charity Bread for the City), giving cash helps them much more than giving canned goods. For one thing, food banks can often get food much cheaper than you could ever buy it from the grocery store. The Slate article quotes the director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy as saying most food banks can obtain 20 times more food than what an ordinary person could buy with the same amount of money. In addition, food banks often need to cover their overhead costs, like rent and staff, more than they need food itself. All of the food in the world won’t do any good if the organization doesn’t have somewhere to store it or people working in the office. Many of them also do non-emergency food work, such as workforce development, healthy eating outreach, and medical services.

Unfortunately, giving cash isn’t always an option. For example, the federal government is only legally allowed to collect money for charity once a year, through the Combined Federal Campaign. If you want to work with your co-workers to give any other time of year, it has to be a physical item being donated. As a result, the government created Feds Feed Families, the massive annual food drive. The rest of the items on here are useful to keep in mind if you’re in this sort of situation.

2) Don’t raid your own cupboard. Most of the time when you get food out of your own pantry, it’s because you never got around to eating it yourself. If you don’t want to eat it, it’s likely no one else does either. The food bank doesn’t want canned goods that you should have thrown out long ago. This especially goes for exotic or specialty food items that are difficult to incorporate into meals.

3) Buy the same quality that you would for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with bags of dried beans or generic store brands, so long as you would be happy with having those in your own cupboard. Personally, I purchase organic canned goods for food drives when I can because it supports agriculture I believe in.

4) Pool your money and buy in bulk. If for some reason, you can’t directly donate cash, at least make it stretch a little further. At work, I offer my co-workers the convenience of supporting a Costco run. No one wants to haul canned goods on the Metro and we were able to purchase a lot more than a bunch of individuals would have.

5) Keep people with food sensitivities and allergies in mind. An increasing number of children are hungry; an increasing number of children have severe allergies. I can’t imagine there’s not some crossover. It’s hard enough to not have enough food, but it’s even worse when you literally can’t eat the food available without dying or getting very sick. In addition, allergen and/or gluten-free foods are often much more expensive than their conventional counterparts, making them even more difficult for families or food banks to purchase. Try to stick at least a couple of gluten-free and/or allergen-free items in your basket.

6) Stick to healthy staples. Many food banks are trying to promote healthy eating habits, with good reason. A lot of them are even offering free cooking classes to adults and children. Unhealthy food is consistently faster, cheaper, and more calorie-rich than healthy food, making it an easy choice in the short-term for hungry people. Providing healthy, basic foods that can be used in simple meals makes it easier for time-stressed, resource-poor folks to eat more healthfully while still getting enough calories. However, this doesn’t mean buying a lot of diet food. The best way to determine what you should get is to follow the recommendations of the food bank itself. If the organization doesn’t provide recommendations, this one from the Capital Area Food Bank is a great start.

7) Buy non-food items if the food bank accepts them. Many low-income folks need hygiene and paper items just as much as food, including soap, paper towels, and feminine products.

8) Find out if the food bank will accept perishable foods and if there’s a way to deliver them effectively. Most food banks get plenty of canned goods, but may also want and need fresh produce. Obviously, you don’t want to give them days-old bread or vegetables, but there may be a place for some creative giving. For example, you might be able to participate in a gleaning session at a local farm, allowing everyone to learn about local agriculture instead of just getting goods from the supermarket.

9) Use the food drive as the start, not the end of the conversation. When I headed my office’s Feds Feed Families effort, I used every email reminder as an opportunity to raise awareness. I pointed out how common hunger is, how much it’s increased since the economic crash, and how many children are affected in our area. I talked about the good work of the recipient, the Capital Area Food Bank, and how they work to provide emergency food supplies as well as other services. Because of the restrictions on using federal equipment for political speech, I wasn’t able to raise awareness around policy, but hope that I at least got people thinking about the subject. Starting conversations about hunger, as well as its causes and effects, can actually have a much more lasting impact on your community than the food you actually collect.

Do you regularly participate in a food drive? Have you found them helpful for starting conversations about our food system?

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8 Responses to A Guide to Food Bank Giving

  1. J.A.B. says:

    I’m much baffled by the grocery store’s stapled bags of food that you can buy and carry to the food bank — though I suppose it’s better than encouraging people to buy random stuff. It’s nicer when they have coupons that you can scan to give money to the food bank, but you often have to hassle the check-out to get one.

    The food bank is fussier than I am about “expired” food — canned goods will keep forever. So I try to clean the cupboards often enough that none of the mistakes are expired — if they are, I have to eat them myself.

    I don’t feel the least bit guilty about giving food that I won’t eat myself; if nobody liked it, it wouldn’t have been available. The last time, it was a jar of grape jelly that had jumped the stick on the conveyor belt — I shouldn’t eat sugar, and don’t like the excessive overdose of too much pectin that they put into store-bought jelly. Dropping it off at Our Father’s House was a lot less hassle than going all the way to the store to ask for a refund.

    I used to give them two cans of evaporated milk every six months, but of late I’ve been using my emergency supplies for emergencies.

    • Shannon says:

      I suspect the stapled bags of goods are there for precisely the reason you point out – so that people at least give something useful. I agree that the coupons are much more effective, but I think people like the feeling of giving something physical (there’s a thought-provoking article on this concept here) so they prefer the bags. Unfortunately, they’re a lot less financially efficient.

      As for giving food in your cupboard, I certainly don’t object if you bought something by mistake that’s still perfectly good. But I’ve heard a couple stories first-hand of people buying some luxury item that they didn’t know what to do with (like specialty mushrooms), had it sit in their pantry for a year, and then contribute it to the food bank. Similarly, I see a lot of items in our food collection bin of things that people probably thought they might want – especially weird soups and stews – but never used. It’s possible someone, somewhere might like it, but if you tried it already and it’s really terrible, you shouldn’t really give it away.

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  3. MaryKaye says:

    Some years ago my local food bank handed out a recipe for pumpkin black bean stew. I suspect they were trying to make a point about “how many cans of pumpkin do you really think we can use?” But the stew was tasty too.

    One case where it might make sense to donate items rather than money is 2 for 1 sales. If I don’t need 2, but they are the same price as 1, giving the second one to the food bank makes sense to me.

    I like the idea of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) deals (you subscribe and receive a box of produce every week), but have never done one because I suspect I’d be overwhelmed. I wonder if one could strike a deal with the local food bank–CSA member opens the box, picks what she can use, donates the rest immediately while it is still perfectly fresh. If our economic situation picks up I think I’ll look into that. The food bank is across the street from the farmer’s market, so this sounds pretty practical.

    • Shannon says:

      That does sound like good stew. But pumpkin definitely has a way of accumulating and most people don’t know how to use it.

      As for 2-for-1 deals, I can see donating it if you really only need one. I know usually if I’m buying something like that, it’s because it’s a staple and I can always use more canned tomatoes.

      In terms of getting a CSA, I would be sure to ask the food bank first about the idea. You sometimes end up with some really weird produce in CSA boxes that not everyone knows how to cook. A lot of the time it’s stuff that’s easy to grow or that the farmer likes growing, but doesn’t always sell well at the farmers market. When I’ve gotten CSA baskets in the past, I’ve ended up with a lot of greens and root vegetables, like turnips and parsnips. Now, I’ve gotten to like parsnips, but I had no idea what to do with them the first time I got them! If the food bank buys into it though, I think it’s a great solution to what can be a challenge.

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  5. MG says:

    Just wanted to thank you for this post, and say that the information you provided influenced my charitable giving this year. Thanks again!

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