I’ve seen an article drifting around the internets about “ten things food banks need but won’t ask for.” (Read it here.) A few people have asked me what I think of it, and given that I manage a food pantry that distributes 1,000+ bags of groceries every month, I feel pretty qualified to comment on it. Here’s the list, in abbreviated form:

  1. spices
  2. feminine products
  3. chocolate
  4. toiletries
  5. canned meats and jerky
  6. crackers and tortillas
  7. baby toiletries
  8. soup packets
  9. socks
  10. canned fruit other than pineapple

Now, every food bank is different. So my ultimate advice is to call the place you’re wanting to donate to and ASK what they need and want the most. We LOVE being asked what we need. Where I work, we have a list that was created a few years back by a nutritionist, and it’s what we go by when we pack grocery bags. It’s family-size specific, and our goal is to provide enough staples for your given family size to feed you for a week, with only a few holes to fill in yourself at the grocery store. Most of our clients receive food stamps, so they are able to buy some things–usually just not enough to last the month. Our bags include oatmeal/grits, cornbread mix, peanut butter and jelly, rice, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, pasta sauce, dry beans, soup, canned vegetables, Ramen noodles, and tuna. We also give out 1-lb tubes of ground beef, one of the only pantries in our area to do so. We rely on donations from individuals and from our network of supporting churches, but, at least where I work, we also spend a significant portion of our budget to stock the pantry. Since we give out such a specific set of items, it is really wonderful to get a call from someone saying, “My group wants to do a food drive. What do you need the most right now?” giving me the freedom as the food pantry manager to evaluate our inventory and say, “You know, we are really, really low on dry beans, and we’ll have to go buy some more soon, spending down our budget, if we don’t get some donated, so it would be really great if you could do a drive just for dry beans.”

Now obviously we are not going to turn anything away. That would be foolish. But think about it: if you use your child’s school’s food drive as an excuse to “clean out your pantry,” you’re likely to be giving away things that a) you didn’t want or b) are expired. And really, is that useful for anyone? That can of pickled beets you found in the back corner of the cabinet; the artichoke hearts that expired in 2011–those don’t feed families. And not all agencies can give out expired food. Most have a policy on how long after the date they can distribute them. For my agency, it’s not at all. As in, if it expired yesterday, we have to throw it away. One time a Girl Scout troop brought a bunch of food and then stayed to sort and shelve it. Part of the process for our pantry volunteers is to check the dates on items before they put them on the shelves, and one poor girl was MORTIFIED to discover that every single item her parents had packed in her bag was expired and couldn’t be shelved. Don’t do that to your kids. I appreciate your heart in wanting to donate, but think about the people on the receiving end!

So, back to the list. Specifically for where I work, here are my thoughts:

  1. spices
  2. We'll throw these into the bags if we have them, but not a necessity: we'd rather you give us pantry staples!
  3. feminine products
  4. Yes, yes, yes! If you're a woman, you've likely noticed how expensive these items are, and yet they are an absolute necessity. We give out hygiene kits when we have the items, and these are great to include.
  5. chocolate
  6. We're indifferent about this. Honestly, our goal is to fill hungry bellies, not to give them treats, so again, if it's a question of giving us chocolate or giving us rice, please choose the rice. However, sometimes a client lets us know that their daughter's birthday is coming up. In that case, we love being able to throw in a box of cake mix if we have it! We also put out snacks for our clients as they wait, so anything that could work there is appreciated: bakery cookies, granola bars, etc.
  7. toiletries
  8. Again, a hearty yes! We are unable to purchase toiletries as we do groceries, but it's wonderful to be able to give them out to people who need them, especially for our clients who are experiencing homelessness. In that case, sample sizes are the best. Toothbrushes, toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo and conditioner, bars of soap: all are wonderful. And another thing you might not think of: laundry detergent. If we get big boxes donated we separate it out into little baggies that are easy to carry.
  9. canned meats and jerky
  10. We give out canned meat (namely vienna sausages) in our snack bags for homeless men and women, so these won't go to waste. But please donate pop-top cans; if someone is eating canned meat as their protein it likely means they don't have a kitchen and therefore no can opener to get into it!
  11. crackers and tortillas
  12. Again, indifferent to this.
  13. baby toiletries
  14. Yes, please! Especially diapers and formula! Larger size diapers, too; many families end up with a surplus of the tiniest sized diapers because their baby doesn't wear them for long and donate those, but we need all sizes.
  15. soup packets
  16. We do give out soup, but the cans are best for our purposes.
  17. socks
  18. For us, we'd rather these go to our thrift store, but we do give out socks and underwear to anyone who receives a clothing voucher for free items, so this is good.
  19. canned fruit other than pineapple
  20. We only include canned fruit in our snack bags, so again, think pop top.

Three closing thoughts:
Many people think that donating the large family-sized containers of things is good. As I said, we won’t turn anything away, but many of our clients come on public transportation, and so we’re always trying to package their items in such a way that it will be easiest to carry back on the bus/train. So, the large peanut butters, while they may last longer, are too hard to carry! People can receive groceries from where I work 6 times in a year, 7 days apart, so the jar only has to last a week. Given that, we much prefer standard sizes.

From certain churches that donate, we seem to get a lot of canned tomatoes. And I mean, A LOT. This fits in with the spices and soup packet suggestion on the list above. I’m sure the thought is that canned tomatoes can be combined with the beans, rice, and ground beef to round out a meal. This is true, and a great thought. But we consider canned tomatoes a vegetable. So if it comes down to a can of green beans or a can of tomatoes, the green beans are much better in my book, because they can be a stand alone side. We put in a certain number of cans of vegetables for a given family size, and it’s best if the tomatoes can be an additional item, not one of the main vegetables. But if all we have is tomatoes then that’s what we have to give out. If you’re standing in the store debating purchasing corn or tomatoes for us, we’d rather you choose the corn. (Though if you can do both that’s fine!)

I also know that the specificity of our bags where I work is perhaps unusual. Some food banks probably operate on a more “we have what we have” basis. So my ultimate suggestion, again, is to throw all the lists out the window and just CALL before you donate. I promise, they will be as pleased as punch.

Laura Lindeman

Laura Lindeman