IS THERE A FOOD DRIVE GOING ON NEAR YOU? Every day for the last week, our kindergartener has loaded up her purple backpack with groceries for her class’s food drive. Boxes of whole-grain pasta and jars of tomato sauce, brownie mix and canola oil, all easier-to-make versions of meals I regularly fix for our family. But I got to thinking, are these really the most useful things to donate?
When we lived in Rome, there was an immigrant woman who used to sit on a plastic crate outside the grocery store. She wore a shawl around her shoulders and scarf on her head. Sometimes her daughter would be there too, a girl about eight years old with long dark hair. Almost always I’d be pushing our big blue double stroller, two apple-cheeked American toddlers in tow, immigrants ourselves. Almost the woman or child would ask for food, pleading in Italian.
Yes, I’d nod. I’ll help. At least I’ll try.
Not speaking Italian well enough to understand the details of their situation, not to mention the complexities of the Italian social system, I’d do what I thought was best. Pick up a few things they could eat right then, plus a few dinner items to take home. Ready-made sandwiches, bottles of milk, string cheeses and fruit. For later, pasta (it was Italy after all), tomatoes, maybe a sliver of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, the good stuff. It was the best I could do without knowing anything about them. Did they have electricity? Any food allergies? I’ll never know. But to this day, I still think about them and wish I could’ve done more.
But now we’re in North Carolina and I can do more. A lot more. Today I spoke with two sources, the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina plus two staffers at The Salvation Army food bank in Durham. Here’s what I learned.
WHO GOES TO A FOOD BANK
Picture a homeless man, an elderly woman or a single mom with three kids but not just babies: a toddler, a second grader and a fourteen-year-old. Maybe they live in an apartment and receive food stamps on a monthly basis, maybe it’s about $200 worth. With food stamps, there are restrictions on what they can buy at the store and almost always, they’ll run out anyway. That’s why they’re at the food bank. The electricity may have just been turned off. There might not be water. Or maybe there’s no apartment at all. Many are in crisis, living in hotels or on the street.
WHAT FOOD BANKS NEED MOST (AND WHAT THEY GET TOO MUCH OF)
* Since I originally posted this, I’ve heard from so many of you that I’ve updated the following list with some of your smart suggestions.
Storage space is often in short supply at food banks, so prioritization is key.
- Money. Many food banks and pantries have access to lower cost supplies than you or I do so a cash donation may go further, plus they’re able to get exactly what they need.
- Canned meats: Think beyond tuna & soup, which food banks get tons of. Instead go for canned beef, canned ham, canned chicken, canned salmon. Or hearty ready-to-go meals like beef stew and chili with meat.
- Canned vegetables: Everyone donates green beans. Instead, give potatoes, carrots, spinach, peas or any other veggies your family likes.
- Canned fruit: Not pineapple. This is the most commonly donated fruit. Any other fruit, particularly those in fruit juice without extra sugar, would be great. Dried fruit works too (raisins, etc.)
- Boxed meals THAT REQUIRE ONLY WATER. Hamburger Helper isn’t helpful if you don’t have hamburger.
- Low-sugar cereal like plain Cheerios
- Peanut butter
- Instant oatmeal, instant grits
- Cans of beans
- Pasta, pasta sauce
- Biscuit or baking mixes (again that only require water)
- Cans, cartons or boxes of powered and evaporated milk
- Snack items for kids to take to school: juice boxes, applesauce containers, granola bars
- Diapers in sizes above newborn, plus wipes
- Toiletries: toothbrushes, soap, toothpaste, lotion, shampoo & conditioner, warm socks, Chapstick (consider someone living outside this time of year)
- Feminine hygiene products: unscented pads will be most universally used, not tampons
- Spices like cinnamon, oregano, basil, salt, pepper
- Sliced bread. It’s got a long shelf life but always goes immediately.
- Bags of apples or potatoes. Ditto.
- Chocolate. It’s not a necessity but just a pick-me-up that I would sure appreciate, especially when it comes time to fill stockings.
* Consider donating reusable sturdy shopping bags. Supplies are heavy plus it takes a lot of humility to come to a food bank. Since they’ll likely be walking home or taking public transportation, it’s nice to at least blend in.
WHAT I DIDN’T REALIZE ABOUT FOOD BANKS
- A lot of people have diabetes in this group. Consider low-sugar dietary restrictions.
- Some food banks have a recording (or a live person) who will explain their top needs of the moment by phone.
- Cans and boxes are sturdier than bags. By the time families are receiving the food, it’s been handled A LOT and packaging needs to be strong enough to hold up. One food bank said never bring anything in glass, ever.
- Pop-top cans are ideal; particularly for those living on the streets.
- Think about weekends and school breaks. Kids who qualify for free lunches typically receive breakfast at school too and when schools are out for holidays or summer, these families need more support.
- Many families are in crisis at this time in their lives and food banks often work in tandem with churches or other non-profit programs to get them back on their feet. The Salvation Army in Durham, for example, coordinates with First Baptist Church’s “Jobs for Life” program. Recipients get interview training and in some cases, a ride to the mall where they’re coached on asking for job applications.
- There’s a difference difference between a food bank and a food pantry*. But for the sake of simplicity, we’ve referred to “food banks” here as a catch-all for all canned food drives and ANY group’s efforts to bring non-perishable items to those in need. If you’d like to connect with a food pantry, which is able to collect fresh fruits, vegetables, even homemade goods and more, Ample Harvest will point you toward a food pantry near you.
These are the top priorities for the food banks I spoke with in my area. But there are still plenty of other things to give–and keep in mind what’s needed here might vary from your area, and definitely from season to season.
What have you given that’s gone over well? Please add your suggestions below.
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