” 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. 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 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)
Storage space is often in short supply at food banks, so prioritization is key.
- 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.)
- Boxes of rice (bags can tear)
- Low-sugar cereal like plain Cheerios or Raisin Bran
- Peanut butter
- Instant oatmeal, instant grits
- Cans of beans
- Pasta, pasta sauce
- Biscuit mix, or any mix you only add water to
- 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, 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 shopping bags. It takes a lot of humility for people to come to a food bank and 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.
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. “