In the United States, one in seven people struggles with hunger, and many rely on food from local food banks to help feed their families. We're about to embark on the holiday season, which is an especially difficult time to live with food insecurity — that is, not knowing when you will get your next meal.
Many of us think about making food donations to local food banks at this time of year. But what types of donations help most? And what kinds of food should you avoid donating? I spoke with representatives from food banks around the U.S. to find out the best ways to help hungry families in your community.
The Best Foods to Donate to Food Banks
Holiday Ingredients and Side Dishes
During the holidays, donations of items like canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and stuffing mix can help make sure a family struggling to put food on the table is still able to enjoy some of their favorite holiday meals.
Terri Kaupp of Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans points out that being able to make traditional holiday side dishes makes for a more festive meal, even if a family cannot afford expensive holiday meats, like turkey or ham. "Even if they're making chicken, they can have the other parts of that holiday meal," she says.
- Canned pumpkin
- Canned yams
- Cranberry sauce
- Boxed stuffing
- Dried macaroni
Shelf-Stable Protein Sources
"Protein is something we try to have on hand all the time," says Kaupp, who suggests donating items like canned fish and canned chicken, as well as vegetarian protein sources, like beans and peanut butter. "If a family is not able to purchase meat, those substitutions can help create a filling meal."
- Canned tuna or salmon
- Canned chicken or other meats
- Canned beans
- Dried beans
- Canned soups and stews
- Peanut butter
- Canned chili
- Trail mix
Rice, Pasta, and Other Pantry Staples
Filling, shelf-stable foods that people can cook and flavor in any number of ways are always welcome. "The main staple items that you would keep in your pantry are what we really need," says Kaupp. Even things like canned cream of chicken soup can be used in a number of different recipes, she points out, and would be useful to recipients. You might also think about donating pantry items that are specific to your region, such as grits in the South.
- Rice (especially whole grain)
- Pasta (especially whole grain)
- Diced tomatoes
- Tomato sauce
- Canned vegetables
- Cooking oils (such as olive oil or canola oil)
Your Time and/or Money
Donating food is not the only way to help your local food bank, and maybe not even the best way. "We distribute 1 million pounds of food every single week," says Andy Morris of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank. "And we couldn't do it without our volunteers." Volunteering is a rewarding way to give back, especially if you go with friends, family members, or colleagues.
If you volunteer, what will you be doing? Food banks always need help with tasks like sorting donations, assisting with fundraising events, answering calls or doing other administrative work, cooking in community kitchens, or providing support in cooking classes. Find your local food bank to see what opportunities are available.
And while it feels less tangible than donating cans of food or spending a day volunteering, giving money is often the most helpful thing you can do for a food bank. Morris points out that if you went to the store and purchased $5 worth of food to donate, you might leave with enough for five meals or so. But he says, "If you donated that $5 to our food bank, because of our economies of scale and the relationships we have with major retailers, wholesalers, farms, and other donors, we can turn that $5 into 20 whole, nutritious meals."
It might not be the most fulfilling way to donate, but giving money rather than food is often the most effective way to help alleviate hunger in your community.
Many food banks make it easy to host "virtual food drives," so you can collect monetary donations rather than canned food from friends, family members, and your community. You can also set up a fundraising drive through the national hunger relief organization Feeding America.
What to Avoid Donating
Junk Food and Soda
Shelf-stable, nutrient-dense food is what people who struggle with food insecurity need most. Although you may think a donation of chips, candy, or other treats might help break up the monotony of the typical donations, the food bank representatives I spoke with assured me they receive more than enough junk food, and that high-quality, nutritious foods are what they really need.
"We get a lot of [unhealthy] snacks," says Kaupp. "Obviously, people need snack foods as a treat too, but you'd be surprised at how much we get." Morris echoes the sentiment: "Although we love the generosity, we really don't need more candy or soda or anything like that."
Damaged, Unlabeled, or Home-Canned Food
For food safety reasons, items like rusty or dented cans, unlabeled packages, or non-commercially packaged food cannot be distributed. The same goes for perishable items, opened containers, and — for some food banks — food in glass containers. If you are unsure, ask your local food bank for their guidelines before donating.
The Bottom Line
Morris says his main advice to food bank donors is similar to the Golden Rule: "Donate whatever you think you would want to eat." It's a good rule for the holiday season, as well as the rest of the year.
Get involved: Find your local food bank at Feeding America