Which foods are best to donate to food banks?

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84:365 - Spotted Dickers PuddingsThe office where I work does a food drive every year for our holiday party. I realize this is kind of a sensitive question but… I’ve seen lots of conflicting advice on the internet about what foods are good or not good to donate.

I was wondering if anyone who has experience would have any suggestions on what kinds of foods are good to donate to a food bank? -Reeba

The conflicting information you’re receiving is likely because different food banks have different needs, at different times. You could always call your specific food bank and ask.

But that also raises the general question as to what foods do you think are best for donating to food banks?

Comments on Which foods are best to donate to food banks?

  1. I know the Food Bank in my city requests generic brands. They have to give the same thing in every hamper so they can’t give Kraft Dinner in one box and generic macaroni and cheese in another. So that Kraft Dinner box will sit around until they have enough to give it to everyone (or they have to deal with complaints from the people who didn’t get the known name brand). So it will go out much faster if it is a generic, no name item.

    Formula and peanut butter are always high on the list here I think. Healthier items are good although don’t give super fancy healthy items because, again, they can’t give that out until they have enough for all of them.

  2. The “it varies by food bank” advice is this, this, this.
    I’ll say that many food banks would rather have a lot of one product versus a random assortment of canned products. (This is because many food banks build identical bundles for their clients–they need enough of one product for all the bundles to accomplish this.) If you can’t get everyone to agree to bring one thing, ask for dollar contributions, then let the food bank use the money how they see fit or call and ask what you can buy on behalf of your office.

  3. Every food bank is a little different but the local one my friend works at and I volunteer with asks for low or no sodium canned veggies, canned protein (tuna, etc), no sodium spices, whole grain cerals and outmeal, dried beans, and good fats (olive oil, natural peanut butter, etc). They also make it known that they do not want high sugar and high sodium items and they will not accept items like boxed mac-m-cheese, candy, Ramon noodles, etc. And every food bank and shelter I’ve ever volunteered with has a high need for formula, personal hygiene items and baby food.

    Money is always a good donation (if your office food drive has that option). Food banks can buy in bulk and get a better rate then most of us can get at the grocery store.

    I can say that as someone who grew up on “government cheese” (because in the 80’s in America, or at least in NY state, people though cheap high calorie food was the way to end hunger) that the low nutritional content food should be avoided if you’re able too. All to often people do a pantry cleaning and donate all the items they don’t want and that usually consists of high salt, high sugar processed food that really doesn’t help.

  4. Generally I like to gives canned vegetables and fruits (not as good as frozen or fresh but hey it helps) more than soups or pastas since a lot of canned soups have ingredients that potential food recipients may be allergic to. This time of year, I really like to give cranberry sauce, because it is the most delicious thing ever. I also like to donate spices, since they stay good forever and either be given away to help flavor a bland meal or can be used by the food bank to make a big meal, if they offer that sort of thing.

    • Good call on the spices. I’ve heard that the best spices/seasonings to donate are salt and pepper, cinnamon, and Italian spice blend (since it can spruce up pretty much anything).

  5. Good guidelines:

    -NO GLASS. If you donate spaghetti sauce, applesauce, etc., donate it in plastic jars or cans. Broken glass is a nightmare.

    -LOW-SUGAR and LOW-SODIUM foods. Give canned fruit packed in juice or water rather than syrup, no-sugar-added pasta sauce, low-sodium soups, etc.

    -SUGAR-FREE JELL-O is a big hit with elderly diabetic patrons.

    Think of what would be fun to get if you were a kid. Grab alphabet pasta instead of spaghetti noodles, funfetti pancake mix instead of plain pancake mix, and dinosaur fruit snacks instead of generic round fruit snacks.

    Think of the ethnic makeup of your area. For example, areas with a large Hispanic population love donations of dry pinto beans and rice, while a city with a lot of Eastern European folks won’t be as thrilled about pintos and rice.

    And finally, see if your local agency accepts non-food items. Things like toilet paper, toothpaste, soap, menstrual supplies, shampoo, etc. can’t be purchased with food stamps and are greatly appreciate by food banks that collect these things.

  6. Is there a difference between a food bank and a food pantry? Where I live, in a large city, we have tons of food pantries that operate every day of the year in poor communities. The kind where people line up at 7am with a grocery bag, and the volunteers fill it with whatever is on hand, trying to fill requests if they can. They are fine with donated food being name brands, specialty items, mac-n-cheese, whatever. They say, “we’ll take anything”. So the needs must vary from place to place.

    As an aside…whenever I go to the dentist I get a free toothbrush, toothpaste and floss. Goes straight to the donation bag.

    • Food pantries/shelves are generally the smallish operations providing front-line services. Many of them turn to food banks for their food, as food banks are larger clearinghouses that can provide food rescue (from grocers/farmers/etc.), bulk purchasing, donations management, etc. on a more efficient larger scale. But the two terms are often used pretty loosely.

      • This! Many food banks started out as food pantries, and their operations have expanded over time, so that’s where some of the confusion comes from. Likewise, some food banks handle front-line service themselves while still doing that big-scale management stuff. During the winter months, there is often higher demand, so operations that don’t otherwise do much front-line work will often have special programs to offer food directly to people.

        Food banks and pantries are run by non-profit organizations. It’s always worth doing a bit of research on the organization before making any contribution. Some food pantries pass literature and tracts with their food parcels, which may be religious in nature. If this is an important issue to you, find out.

  7. Firstly, I’ll state that I’m in Australia, so my advice is possibly different to what would be given in the US.

    I’ve actually recently just been on a tour of my local food bank (I’m working on a major project with them that I hope against all hope I’ll be able to pull off…), and the three things that stuck in my head were; they would LOVE to have pantry staples available at all times, but due to the nature of donations, they often don’t have those things that most people want every time – cooking oil, butter/margarine, tinned tuna, milk, etc; they can pretty much NEVER get enough toilet paper to meet demand; and, they will never EVER say no to a donation. Sure, there are things they’d rather not get a pallet of – White Chocolate & Cheese Tim Tams spring to mind (true story), but they will never turn you away.

    Oh, and as mentioned above, they have a very strong preference for healthy foods – i.e. no chocolate, chips, lollies/candy or softdrink/soda, or ‘unhealthy’ breakfast cereal – cocoa pops, etc. My local food bank had at least a whole shelf in their distribution/palleting area of what my Dad would call ‘party food’ waiting for the right event/use, because they won’t put that stuff in the main ‘shop’ area, nor will they donate it to the school breakfast programs they support.

  8. As someone who had to rely on a food bank for number of years while going to university I would really recommend to try and give nutrient dense foods. Canned meats, canned beans, canned veggies, oatmeal (the ones with the individual serving size packets), rice, pasta, etc.

    When you can’t afford to buy food, or can only buy minimal foods your options are really limited and are often highly refined and not very healthy. Food items like Mac and cheese, ramen noodles, etc are always at food banks because they are a cheap donation item. But, living off those same items day after day is overwhelming and detrimental to someone’s health.

    Baby items like formula and baby food are always always needed, as are personal hygiene items.

  9. Also, some food bank type operations take fresh food on the day of their drop offs, i.e. Trevor’s Campaign. I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to. Definitely, check websites or give them a ring.

  10. Not every soup kitchen or food bank can take individual money donations, so I’d check on that. When I volunteered at the soup kitchen in my hometown, they definitely wanted pantry staples (rice, butter, beans, chicken or vegetable stock, oatmeal, canned meats) because they were actually cooking. When we lived on government assistance, I wanted these same types of foods. But I wanted to cook. Don’t forget about basic spices–salt, pepper, those packets of Mexican or chili spice, vanilla extract–because those are often very hard to find in food banks. Low-sodium soups and low-sugar fruits, oatmeal packets, ect. Any assistance is good assistance, but I definitely got sick of cheap mac and cheese and cereal. My rule of thumb: if I won’t eat it, why would I donate it?

  11. It depends on the food bank. I tend to donate pet food, toilet paper, diapers, and sunbutter. Pet food because after talking to the folks at the food bank I donate to, I learned that the most requests items are stuff that can be used as pet food, diapers, formula, and household items. I also donate sunbutter because I have a nephew with a peanut allergy and that has raised my awareness to the issue. I learned that alternatives to peanut butter lasts less than 2 days on the shelf.

  12. I actually work for a food shelf. I can tell you that most food shelves prefer money donations to food donations, because they can stretch those dollars a lot further. For instance, a food shelf/bank might be able to buy 1000 pounds of rice at a bulk price, whereas you might have to pay full retail price for a 1-pound bag.

    Another big challenge for most food shelves is that as our clients become more health-conscious, they get sick of the canned and processed foods (just as many of us do). It’s very important for us to have the funds to buy fresh products, which is another reason why donating money makes a huge impact.

    But in terms of food, I agree that it’s important to buy quality, nutritious items. Peanut butter, canned meats, beans, low-sodium soups, etc. are great. Breakfast cereal is in demand at many food shelves. Cooking oil, sugar, flour, etc. are also usually popular. I also agree with someone’s suggestion to look into what immigrant or ethnic groups in your food shelf’s service area prefer to eat, as those culturally-specific foods are often in high demand and low supply.

    Try to stay away from things like ramen, high-sodium foods, highly processed things, etc. Obesity and diabetes are an issue for all populations, and especially low-income people who struggle to access healthy food and good medical care. Food shelf clients benefit most from using the food shelf when they can access quality foods far beyond what they would be able to afford themselves.

    And if your food bank can accept hygiene items, diapers, pet food, TP, etc. those will definitely be used and appreciated by clients. Pet food is one of the most popular items one of my organization’s food shelf stocks. A lot of people would rather sacrifice their own health and nutrition to make sure their pet is fed and healthy first, so being able to take that worry off of someone’s mind makes it easier for them to focus on their own wellness.

  13. I think everybody’s suggestion of checking with the bank you’re donating to is fantastic. Takes the guesswork out, plus they may be lacking in a specific area that you can focus on. Or stay away from. Mine always told us NOT to donate corn or green beans, if given a choice. Apparently people tend to just clean out their cupboard when donating, which is wonderful, except then they’re inundated with corn…

    My local food bank that we volunteer every year at also does a healthy lunch program for kids, so they ask for healthy snack foods like juice boxes, 100% fruit roll-ups or low sugar pudding cups. (Think about it, wasn’t the Snack Pack the best part of your lunch??)

    Also, maybe think about encouraging your workplace to do another drive next year? Food drives are huge around the holidays, but people need food in April too.

  14. Another suggestion: check to see if your food bank has a baby cupboard. Things like formula, diapers, wipes, and the like are usually in high need. Our church has a baby cupboard and will often put out requests for specific sizes of diapers (larger sizes are usually in need), so check and see what is in high demand!

    • This is such a good idea. Parents can not use most forms of public assistance to buy things like diapers and wipes. And WIC and other types of assistance dictate when you have to switch from formula to whole milk and with special needs/ medically fragile babies their doctor may recommend waiting to make that switch. And if they have to pay-out of pocket for formula for a few months (and specialty prescription formula can run upto $50 per can) that can eat up all their finances. This is a constant point of stress for a some of the parents in my preemie support group. Their kids need high calorie or hydrolized formulas for much longer then average and they are pricey — it cost us 158$ a week in formula for my twins. We luckily had money to buy that but many many parents do not.

    • Yes! But make SURE that the formula or baby food you send is not out of date or will be out of date very soon. Often, food banks can use certain foods that are out of date, but I’ve been told that that any baby food items or formula is automatically chucked. You don’t want them to have to dispose of it for you.

  15. I try to think of it in terms of “if I were the recipient, what would I want?” Nutrient-rich, low sugar/sodium, organic if possible, etc. Not Cheez Whiz and Twinkies (which, while tasty and have their time, aren’t something to be consumed on the regular). Also peanut-free / dairy-free / gluten-free / etc options for those with allergies.

    I also try to donate toiletries. Even though canned food is cheap so you feel like you’re donating a lot, people still need diapers and tampons and deodorant.

  16. I often donate the pricier gluten free or allergen free staples such as cases of canned of the gluten free chicken noodle soup, tetra packed (shelf stable) rice or almond milks, gluten free bread or baking mixes, or allergen free cereal & granola that I can get at close out prices or with case discounts (Amazon Prime’s case price and subscription service is AWESOME for this FYI because you can set up donation deliveries for as often as you like). I will typically contact the organization I donate to and let them know when I’m coming to drop off these items since the food banks I donate to do have special sections for people with food allergies or sensitivities and I don’t want them to accidentally be placed in the wrong spot.

  17. I spent last winter scouring the Internet for a list like this! I wish I’d read it then… now I realize some of the stuff I’ve donated was likely impossible to distribute, like the giant Cosco bag of rice.

    • It might not have been useless! It might have been given to a large family. Many food shelves/banks also have the facilities needed to repackage bulk items into smaller quantities.

  18. I’ve been volunteering at Canadian food banks for the past 8 years and what is most necessary is protein sources. There is so many carbs (cereal, oatmeal, pasta, rice) and canned veggies, but what we always run low on is the protein sources (other than PB and other nut butter substitutes).

  19. I always take a look at the food bank/pantry’s needs list, but canned meats and peanut butter seem to be consistently on them, and around Thanksgiving there tend to be a lot of seasonal requests, so I usually give cranberry sauce this time of year.

    The food pantry that my church donates to gets eggs donated in bulk in huge cases from somewhere but needs empty one dozen egg cartons to split them up for each family.

  20. The last food drive I went to I had a lot of baby food because right after we stocked up my daughter decided she preferred to feed herself and would only accept finger foods. The people at the barrels were thrilled to get it. We also gave cash, which is our norm, but I had a feeling the baby food would go over well.

  21. Okay so this is really REALLY sad, but it’s true I have seen it. My day job is no where near as glamorous as my night job. I work at a behavioral health facility that regularly deals with those in SEVERE need. When we get food or host food banks/drives of our own this is what we try to get people to bring in. Baby food is good (especially if it’s for a women’s shelter) but to be completely straight forward items with pop tops (Spam, canned sausages” Anything that opens without any special tools. Those little cup things with tuna salad and spoons are great too. It doesn’t matter if it’s generic or not, the problem is SO many of these people are so bad off they don’t have a can opener they carry around with them, they have no way of opening that can of corn you just donated or those beets or anything else. So when I donate I try to always stick to those foods. Anything that opens on it’s own and baby foods.

    • It definitely depends on who your food shelf mostly serves. Folks experiencing homelessness? Pop-top foods that don’t need heating/cooking. Seniors? Low-sodium options that are useful for a one-person household and don’t take too much energy to prepare. Families? Larger quantities that can feed a crowd and are kid-friendly.

      • I certainly agree that you should try to match your donations to the folks being helped. For instance my moms church is constantly collecting and donating to the battered women’s shelter. they are always asking for special items, cake mixes, fun snacks, chocolate milk mixes. Anything to help take the children’s minds off of the bad situations they’re facing. While on the other hand the PTA at the very low income elementary school i used to live next to was in need of healthy snacks that didn’t need cooking or cooling.

        I’ve never heard of a food bank/pantry denying items, but it’s a huge plus to have things on hand that will be the most effective for specific clients.

  22. I work at a homeless shelter, not a food bank, but we take in a lot of donations. You should definitely find out which food bank you’re donating to and ask for a list of things they need. Nothing is more frustrating than to get a bunch of well-meaning donations that you can’t really use.

    If they give out baskets with specific items to families, find out what they like to put in each basket and do a food basket drive instead of a generic drive. That way you know the items you donated are exactly what they need, and your office can have the extra incentive of knowing that they provided food for X number of people. 🙂

    • That’s an awesome idea. They actually do something like that at our local grocery store chain. They give you the list of things for one family (ex: 2 lbs. flour, 2 lbs. sugar, 1 package noodles, etc.) and then you box them up at home and bring them back to the store to be distributed.

      It takes a little more effort, but you know you’ve got what is really needed and it can be distributed right away.

  23. We used food pantries a lot when I was a kid and my eyes would light up when I saw pancake mix. Even though I’m still scraping by as my husband and I are both students and have a two year old, I don’t need to use food pantries anymore – so I donate a box of the just-add-water kind whenever I can (the ones where you add milk and eggs make breakfast more expensive for families with very little).
    Vegetarian/vegan options are also often in short supply – Amy’s Soups are a good choice. 🙂

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