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Food Bank Giving: Making Better Donations

Canned goods and donations at a food bank.

Especially at a time when the need is so great, those who are able should donate to a food bank. Recently, I’ve stuck with some of my usual donation choices, and reconsidered others.

I recently received a list of suggested donations via email with no attribution to the creator. In truth, however, the list of items probably isn’t as helpful as the “themes” I gathered when reading the list, along with some restrictions I wasn’t always aware of. 

Food banks often have an abundance of well-loved items. For example, pasta and pasta sauce. Another popular donation is Stove Top stuffing.

On the one hand, you might want to avoid donating these items because the food bank already has a ton.

On the other hand, who doesn’t like these foods?

If you’re contributing these kinds of items, consider varying the stuffing flavor or the size/shapes of pasta.

Some donations need “help”

Commonly-donated foods are great, but some need to “go with” something, which the family might not have.

For example:

  • Some boxes of macaroni and cheese need to be made with milk and butter
  • Rice-A-Roni needs oil, which is expensive
  • Peanut butter and jelly are great, but some families don’t have bread
  • Hamburger Helper doesn’t work without the ground meat
  • Cereal makes a respectable breakfast, but what about the milk?

So-called “boxed milk,” i.e., shelf-stable milk, is great because it goes on cereal. There are several types of shelf-stable milk, including but not limited to powdered milk.  

If you’re wondering, yes, boxed milk is real milk. It’s simply pasteurized at a higher temperature than milk in the dairy department. It lasts about 6-12 months. And although most people don’t think it tastes quite as good as the refrigerated milk we typically think of, some people can’t tell the difference.  

Consider donating oils; they can be used in a variety of ways. Oil can be added to the popular Rice-A-Roni or a cake mix.

When donating to a food pantry, try to envision meal planning like you would for your own family, and give everything you’d need for the meal. For example, if you’re donating pasta sauce, donate noodles and a can of parmesan cheese. If you’re donating rice and canned chicken breast, add a can of mixed veggies and some cream of mushroom soup for a casserole.

Packaging matters

I’ve donated tons of canned fruits, vegetables, and soups. But some families don’t have a can opener, so next time, I’ll look for the pop tops or easy-open packaging.

Boxes are better than bags, if there is an internal bag. For example, I usually buy my own sugar in a bag, but it’s also sold in boxes. Sugar in the box is better for a donation to a food bank because it’s less likely to be torn open.

Treats and fun matter

Here are some ideas for treats:

  • A box of cake mix and canned frosting (and even candles) to make a birthday cake
  • Flour and sugar are ingredients for recipients to make homemade treats
  • Salt and pepper, dried herbs (e.g., basil) and spices (e.g., cinnamon) are often expensive but enhance food flavor
  • Tea bags, hot chocolate packets, and coffee are comfort foods for some.

Non-food items are needed, too

Items like dishwashing liquid and feminine hygiene products aren’t “food” but they are accepted by many food banks and appreciated.

Some pantries are also accepting donations of toilet paper and other household necessities.

This year, more than ever, good old-fashioned soap, as well as gel hand sanitizer, would be good.

Fresh foods and produce are great

Some food banks won’t accept fresh produce, so call ahead to find out. Those who do accept fresh produce will likely want it in a bag. I’d suggest a bag of a produce that keeps well, e.g., a bag of apples or a bag of carrots.

Nearly everyone loves dairy products, such as fresh milk, butter, and eggs. But not all food banks have the capacity to accept these.

Check out this article that gives some facts you need to know and some general ideas of what many food banks will or will not accept. All are a little different, so your best bet is to call ahead or check their website.

Some of my go-to canned goods

I worry about protein. Humans need at least 3 ounces of protein a day in order to build and repair cells. Carbohydrates and fats don’t do that.

I almost always donate cans of tuna and cans of chicken breast. I also buy cans of beef. Canned ham can also be used in a variety of ways. Some people don’t like sardines, but others do. (I do!) But they are inexpensive and offer a very high amount of vitamin D.

Canned beans are a nutritious and filling food. They contain many amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. However, the body can form a complete protein when combined with whole grains. So, if you donate the beans, donate the brown rice, barley, millet, quinoa or other whole grain in hopes the family also get them, and eats both within a 24-hour window.

Diabetics are frequent recipients of food bank donations. Sugar-free apple sauce is a great option for them. For anyone, it’s a snack or side that’s low-calorie, high-fiber, rich in Vitamin C and other antioxidants.

You can substitute applesauce for some of the oil in a cake or muffins. And, applesauce comes in big jars, individual servings, different flavors, and pop-tops. How good is that?  

Don’t give what can’t be used

There are some general rules that pertain to some or many food banks. A big one is, don’t drop off foods that have expired, don’t have a label, or those where the packaging is damaged. If you wouldn’t use it for your family, don’t donate it.

Many food banks also have partnerships with manufacturers, retailers, and even farms, so monetary donations are welcome. Monetary donations allow food banks to cover other costs, like transportation to pick up food items. The cash also helps the organization to supplement with non-food items families need.

Do you have go-to items that you donate to a local food pantry? Share your favorite tips or suggestions in the comments.

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