More than 35 million Americans live in households that are food insecure, which means that they don’t have the resources to regularly acquire nutritious, safe food. Food banks are almost always in need of nonperishable food items, but most people only turn their attention to feeding the hungry around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. Although it’s great to donate cans of soup and boxes of pasta to a food bank, there’s a lot more you can do to make a difference. Here are 12 ways you can help your local food bank.
Committing a few hours a month to volunteer at your local food bank can be a huge boon to an organization that’s probably understaffed and working with a limited budget. Food banks need volunteers to sort donations, stock shelves, prepare meals, serve food, and deliver care packages. Your local food bank may also need volunteers to do bookkeeping or online work, so be sure to inquire about their additional needs if you have any specialty skills that you think might be of service.
2. Host a pantry donation party.
Fall is a time for family parties and get-togethers with friends, so why not host a party with a theme that focuses on donating to the hungry? When you invite loved ones over to your house, tell them to bring a few nonperishable food items. Besides chatting and eating, your friends and family will be doing good for needy people. After the party, bring all the items you collected to your local food bank.
3. Give money.
Because most food banks rely on donations to feed the hungry, giving money can be a huge help. Food banks buy food at wholesale, bulk, or other discounted rates, meaning that they can get a large amount of food for a small amount of money. Some food banks also have matching deals with food manufacturers, so the manufacturer donates money or food for certain purchases that the food bank makes. And when a food bank has a plethora of rice and beans but not enough fruit or vegetables, money you donate can help them fill in the gaps of whatever food they’re missing.
4. Find out if your company participates in a matching gift program.
Some large corporations have matching gift programs, in which they’ll match a donation you make to charity. If your employer offers such a program, fill out the paperwork and use your company's generosity to effectively double your donation. As the largest hunger-relief organization in the U.S., Feeding America is a good place to think about making a donation (and using your company’s matching policy to help even more).
5. Make a holiday donation in someone else's name.
Though tangible gifts for holidays and birthdays are often top of mind, consider eschewing physical items to instead make a monetary donation in someone else’s name. Feeding America offers an eCard you can send to people when you make a donation in their name. And if you recently lost a loved one, you can make a memorial donation to honor his or her memory and ask that others do the same.
6. Don't donate items that your food bank can’t use.
Before donating any food to your local food bank, contact them to ask what they need. Most food banks won’t accept containers that have been opened, products that have expired, homemade dishes, or alcohol. In general, opt for metal cans and plastic containers over breakable glass jars, and try to give nutritious food that will last a long time, such as rice, beans, oatmeal, peanut butter, pasta, and canned veggies.
7. If you're an avid gardener, see if your local food bank accepts fresh produce.
Depending on the capacity and location of a food bank, it might have a need for fresh produce, such as carrots, potatoes, tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers. Ample Harvest encourages home gardeners to plant an extra row of veggies, with the intention of donating, and has resources to help find pantries in your area that would be able to accept your crop.
8. Think outside the kitchen.
Although a food bank's main focus is on feeding people, some also accept cosmetics and hygiene products. Besides the obvious canned foods, you might be able to donate baby food, diapers, cleaning supplies, toilet paper, soap, and toothpaste. If you're not sure about a certain item, call your local food bank ahead of time to see if they accept those items and have a need.
9. Don’t forget spices and condiments.
Most food banks get a ton of staple foods, but they’re often lacking in spices and condiments. Salt, pepper, mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, and Sriracha are versatile items that can be donated along with food.
10. Contact your congressperson.
Call, email, or write a letter to your local and state representatives about the importance of food banks and the work they do to feed the hungry in your community. Before you contact your representative, educate yourself by reading about current legislation and how you can become a hunger relief advocate.
11. Arrange to donate leftovers from your party.
Some venues have strict rules about what to do with leftover food from a catered party. If you’re hosting a holiday event with catered food, try to choose a venue that doesn’t throw out leftover food for health or liability reasons. And if your local food bank won't accept leftovers, ask if they can suggest another organization that will accept this type of food donation.
12. Remember that people are in need year-round.
It’s great to help your local food bank around Thanksgiving and Christmas, but some food banks have a surplus of food in the fall and winter and a dearth in the summer months. Remember that people are in need of food all the time. If you want to donate food year-round, think about giving items on the first day of every month, or plan to evenly space out your donations throughout the calendar year.
This article originally ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2021.