In the United States, one in seven people struggles with hunger, and many rely on food from local food banks to help feed their families. The holiday season is an especially difficult time to live with food insecurity — that is, not knowing when you will get your next meal — and many of us think about making food donations to local food banks at this time of year.
But what types of donations help most? And what kinds of food should you avoid donating?
Holiday Ingredients and Side Dishes
Donations of items like canned pumpkin, cranberry sauce, and stuffing mix can help make sure a family struggling to put food on the table is still able to enjoy some of their favorite holiday meals. Terri Kaupp of Second Harvest Food Bank in New Orleans points out that being able to make traditional holiday side dishes makes for a more festive meal, even if a family cannot afford expensive holiday meats, like turkey or ham. “Even if they’re making chicken, they can have the other parts of that holiday meal,” she says.
1. Canned pumpkin
Shelf-Stable Protein Sources
“Protein is something we try to have on hand all the time,” says Kaupp, who suggests donating items like canned fish and canned chicken, as well as vegetarian protein sources, like beans and peanut butter. “If a family is not able to purchase meat, those substitutions can help create a filling meal.”
1. Canned tuna or salmon
Rice, Pasta, and Other Pantry Staples
Filling, shelf-stable foods that people can cook and flavor in any number of ways are always welcome. “The main staple items that you would keep in your pantry are what we really need,” says Kaupp. Even things like canned cream of chicken soup can be used in a number of different recipes, she points out, and would be useful to recipients. You might also think about donating pantry items that are specific to your region, such as grits in the South.
1. Rice (especially whole grain)
What to Avoid Donating
Junk Food and Soda
Shelf-stable, nutrient-dense food is what people who struggle with food insecurity need most. Although you may think a donation of chips, candy, or other treats might help break up the monotony of the typical donations, the food bank representatives I spoke with assured me they receive more than enough junk food, and that high-quality, nutritious foods are what they really need.
“We get a lot of [unhealthy] snacks,” says Kaupp. “Obviously, people need snack foods as a treat too, but you’d be surprised at how much we get.” Morris echoes the sentiment. “Although we love the generosity, we really don’t need more candy or soda or anything like that,” he says.
Damaged, Unlabeled, or Home-Canned Food
For food safety reasons, items like rusty or dented cans, unlabeled packages, or non-commercially packaged food cannot be distributed. The same goes for perishable items, opened containers, and — for some food banks — food in glass containers. If you are unsure, ask your local food bank for their guidelines before donating.