Are your food pantry donations going to waste?

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Looking to make a difference in your community? Consider making a donation to your local food pantry, but don’t make just any donation. Knowing how to donate to your food pantry means your donation will go further to help those who need it.

Person holding a cardboard box filled with non-perishable food items.
Did you know food pantries have changed? It isn’t just canned veggies anymore, and what they really need will surprise you. Photo credit: Depositphotos.

Why your food pantry needs support now

Food insecurity isn’t just a holiday problem. People struggle to put food on the table throughout the year, and the need for food assistance is greater than ever. However, most people only think about donations just before the holidays, so food pantries start to become bare bones.

Food prices have soared over the past few years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, food prices increased 9.9% in 2022 and another 5.8% in 2023, which makes it that much harder for struggling families to put sufficient food on their tables.

“The number of shoppers we serve in a month has definitely doubled. Every month the numbers go up,” says Patrice Miller, Coordinator at the Barrington Township Food Pantry. “We often have community members question whether there is a need for a food pantry given our general community demographics. Of course, there are people who need food pantry support here as there are in any community. People may not fit the stereotype of poverty, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t struggling or in need.”

With April being National Volunteer Month and National Volunteer Week falling from April 21 to 27, now is the perfect time to focus on your food pantry donations. Just make sure that what you donate matches the needs of your food pantry.

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Buy items your pantry needs

You’ve probably heard the typical advice like not purchasing macaroni and cheese boxes because it’s harder to provide the equivalent milk and butter to make it and to purchase the microwaveable cups of mac and cheese that don’t require additional ingredients instead. It goes beyond these simple tips, however, if you truly want to maximize your donations.

Your local food pantry likely has a website or social media page where they list urgently needed items. You can also always reach out to the food pantry directly to ask what they most need at that time. They are happy to hear from you.

“Canned tuna, chicken, small, canned hams and spam are all very popular. Everybody likes those items. Tuna is popular in any culture, and so is spam in many cultures,” says Miller.

Canned meats are purchased less often than many canned goods. Even with the rise in allergies, peanut butter remains a popular choice and is a versatile form of protein.

Think beyond canned goods

You may think of food pantries as providing just canned goods, but the majority of food pantries have expanded their services. “The image most people have of a food pantry is shelves full of non-perishable items, but every pantry I’ve been to has a big cooler and freezer. It may have been that way years ago, but we accept fresh foods as all food pantries do today,” explains Miller.

With a cooler, your food pantry may be able to supply eggs, cheese, butter and other perishable items that tend to be popular with clients who come to shop. Even without the cooler, fresh vegetables from garlic and onions to potatoes to bell peppers and apples get chosen by shoppers and are donated less often.

That said, most food pantries do not accept refrigerated milk, as it spoils too quickly. Instead, look for shelf-stable milk options in boxes that last far longer. Most food pantries find that cows’ milk is a better fit for their clients than almond milk or other non-dairy beverages.

Another popular category that you often don’t think about is spices. Salt and pepper are always popular, but so are soy sauce, salad dressings and everything from cinnamon to garlic powder. Many food pantries cannot keep any of these in stock because they are so popular but not frequently donated.

But don’t buy bulk-size items

When you want your dollar to go farther, you tend to buy the largest size because the unit cost is at its lowest. However, this often doesn’t work well when purchasing for a food pantry.

That giant-sized peanut butter or huge bottle of oil may cost less per ounce, but food pantries cannot divide that among multiple families. And many families cannot use an item that size before it goes bad.

Additionally, many families do not have the means to transport bulk items or store them in their homes. This leads to your well-intentioned donation sitting on a shelf until it expires and cannot be used.

Instead, purchase smaller portioned items that let the food pantries serve more families and increase flexibility. Foods like tuna fish and pasta that you can buy in bulk but come individually packaged within the bulk purchase are great choices, however, as the food pantry can easily divide and distribute them.

Food pantries deliver more than just food

Food pantries are about providing dignity in all needs. Many, though not all, provide food not just to human clients but also accept pet food, both dry and canned.

Some donations food pantries truly appreciate but don’t tend to get enough of are the essentials many people often take for granted. Think about donating paper towels, toilet paper, sponges, trash bags and feminine hygiene products. Shampoo, toothpaste and deodorant are other great choices.

Help your donation dollar go farther

If you can’t decide what to donate, shop the sales. With the list of items that your food pantry needs, see what happens to be on sale that week and stock up.

Even if you don’t normally use coupons, when you combine coupons with store sales, you can often purchase more than you initially expected with your chosen budget. Many food pantries have a mailing list where they call out special sales on items they urgently need, making it even easier.

But don’t just shop your pantry at home

It’s tempting to look through your pantry and pull out all the items that have accumulated over time that you thought you would use but haven’t. Stop yourself.

Often, those items have sat in your pantry for longer than you remember and are expired. Food pantries cannot give out expired items and instead must sort through all the donations like this to remove them.

“Please don’t do pantry clean outs. We have received items from clean outs that are as much as 10 years old. Also, skip food packages that have been opened. I always say to people, If you don’t want this item, no one else will want it,” explains Miller.

What you have in your pantry may include specialized ingredients that the shoppers at the food pantry don’t know how to use. Even if it is not expired when you donate it, if it isn’t on the food panty’s requested items list, it may sit on the shelf until it does expire.

You can always provide a direct monetary donation

Food pantries don’t accept just food. They are happy to take a donation of money and often gift cards to local grocery stores, as well.

Cash allows them to purchase exactly what they need that they have not received via donation, and many food pantries have wholesale agreements where they can purchase items at a far lower cost than the general public.

The funds also allow food pantries to purchase the items people haven’t donated. Circumstances and shopper needs can change rapidly when a particular item or set of items suddenly becomes popular and needs to be replaced at a faster pace, and direct donations allow food pantries the flexibility to make these purchases.

The funds also help with supplementing their operating budget, whether that is the rent they pay to lease a space or the cost to run or replace a cooler. People don’t tend to think about the cost of running a food pantry, even when it is staffed primarily by volunteers.

Whatever you donate, make sure it counts

Donating to your local food pantry is a meaningful way to support your community and help those in need. By being mindful of your donation choices, you can ensure that your food or dollar donation truly supports your food pantry’s mission. Your donation, no matter the size, helps bring a sense of security and a healthy meal to those facing difficult times.

Michelle Price is a food and travel writer at Honest and Truly who almost has an empty nest. She loves to provide both the inspiration and the confidence you need to help get you into the kitchen and on the road to enjoy new flavors and experiences.

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