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How to Donate to a Food Bank

Mychelle Blake
people working in charitable foundation

Food banks play a valuable service to communities across the United States. Donating to your local food bank can help ensure that meals are provided to hungry children and adults living either in poverty or homeless.

What Donated Items Do Food Banks Need?

Before you donate, contact your local food bank or check out their website to see what specific items they need. Although each individual food bank has their own unique needs, most tend to look for the same general types of food donations. Food banks look for foods that are nutritious, high in protein, and shelf stable. Some of the best food to donate to a food bank include:

  • "Shelf stable" foods like peanut butter, applesauce, unsalted nuts, crackers and bagged or boxed fruit juices.
  • Canned foods including soup, fruit, vegetables, beans, chili, stew, spam, chicken, salmon, or tuna fish.
  • Pantry staples such as cooking oils, rice, flour, spices, marinades, and pasta.
  • Individually packaged instant foods that are made with water. Examples include oatmeal, pancake mix, whole grain cereal, noodles, mashed potatoes and soup.
  • Beverages that can be made with water, such as instant coffee and tea or powdered lemonade, fruit juice or milk.
  • Packaged meals that don't require anything other than water to cook, such as macaroni and cheese with pre-made cheese sauce.
  • Individually packaged foods that do not require refrigeration like granola bars, crackers with peanut butter or cheese, fruit cups and even candy bars or cookies.
  • Specialty foods such as cake mix and frosting, or non-perishable ethnic foods depending on the region you live in.
  • Foods for special dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free, low or sodium-free, nut-free or vegan are always needed.
  • Bottled water is always useful.
  • Holiday type foods are desirable during those times of years, as families will want to cook a holiday meal together. Think canned cranberry sauce, canned gravy, stuffing mix, and instant mashed potatoes.
  • Baby food that is not in a glass jar is often accepted.

Non-Food Items

Food banks often take items that support a household.

  • Diapers are accepted by many food banks.
  • Personal care items are accepted by many food banks such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, soap, shampoo and feminine hygiene products.
  • Food banks often can take household care items such as laundry detergent, kitchen and bathroom cleaners, and paper products like toilet paper and paper towels.
  • Pet food is often accepted at food banks as long as it hasn't been opened.
  • Tote bags are accepted by some food banks as it helps the people they serve carry the food out easily.

Donate Your Time

Running a food bank is a time intensive job and many cannot survive without the help of dedicated volunteers. Donating your time to help with their important work will always be much needed and appreciated.

Can You Donate Money to a Food Bank?

Donating money to a food bank is always a good idea. In fact, many food banks actually prefer that you donate money to them over food. Food bank staff have the ability to source lower cost food from distributors and manufacturers. They can buy more with your donations than you could buying food on your own and donating it. Money is also desirable because a food bank needs more than food and funding can always be used to provide for important things like office supplies and operating expenses.

Group of volunteers with hands together

How to Donate to a Food Bank During an Emergency

During times of crisis, it's natural to want to give to a local food bank to make sure the most vulnerable members of the population are fed. While the types of items a food bank needs during an emergency, do not differ from regular times, food banks may suffer from low volume on specific items. The best course of action is to contact your local food bank and find out what they need the most. Volunteering and money are also some of the most powerful donations you can make during a crisis time, as food banks will be struggling more than usual to meet the needs of indigent populations. Following your food bank on social media and forwarding their posts with requests for help can also be a great way to help during any time of year, but especially during a crisis.

Where to Donate To Places That Need it Most

To find a food bank that is open and available for donations near you, the Feeding America website has a food bank finder tool. You can also contact your local department of social services for input on food banks that need help right away, as well as your church.

What Not to Donate to a Food Bank

Although people donate with the best of intentions, there are items that food banks generally do not need and would prefer you didn't donate.

  • Refrigerated items are not useful to food banks, as they require more cold space than a food bank might have. This means avoid donating fresh dairy products like eggs, milk and cheese.
  • Since food banks are "shopped" by families, large bulk food packaging is harder for them to carry out. If you have large bulk bags of rice, for example, consider contacting a local shelter that cooks meals for the poor or homeless to see if they can use it.
  • Junk foods are discouraged.
  • Unhealthy beverages such as soda are not useful to a food bank.
  • Expired food items cannot not be used by a food bank.
  • Personally prepared foods such as home-cooked meals and baked goods cannot be donated to a food bank, as well as items that you canned yourself.
  • Foods that require additional utensils to open them, such as can or bottle opener.
  • Damaged packages cannot be accepted at a food bank, which would include dented cans, ripped bags or broken boxes.
  • Fragile containers are discouraged at food banks since they can break easily. Avoid donating foods in glass bottles or wrapped in cellophane.
  • Alcohol will not be accepted at a food bank.

Support Your Local Food Bank

Donating to a food bank is a wonderful way to help your community and provide a safety net for people in need. Always contact your local food bank or visit their website or social media to find out what their current needs are and bring donations that they will make the best use of. Don't forget to consider giving your time as well and providing monetary donations to further your food bank's good work.

How to Donate to a Food Bank