11 Surprising Ways to Help Your Local Food Pantry

Photo: Thinkstock/demaerre

Holidays spark the spirit of giving. And with Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas around the corner, food donations are in full swing to help fight hunger. Schools are sending flyers home and local grocery stores are hosting food drives. Unfortunately, hunger is silently sweeping our nation with 42 million people struggling to find their next meal. But there are ways you can help that cost nothing.

Can I share a little secret with you? I work at a food pantry. I see donations from well-intentioned people daily. Unfortunately, about 25 percent of our donations are tossed, leaving volunteers aggravated and frustrated. In my six years, I have witnessed jaw-dropping donations such as a can of 1993 expired carrots, opened and used spices, cigarettes, beer and even worse: a garbage bag full of boxed pasta covered in dried animal urine. While these examples are extreme, they are reality. The food pantry where I work recently filled a dumpster to the rim with 2,000 pounds of expired and damaged food after a Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive.

Food drives are not a time to clean out cabinets. Food pantries cannot accept damaged or expired food and have limited means for disposal. A good rule to follow? Donate foods you would eat or feed your child.

In the wake of natural disasters across the United States coupled with the fast-approaching holiday season, many people are looking for ways to give back. If you want to donate, I put together a list of ideas and most of them do not cost a dime.

1. Ask First 

Contact your local food pantry and find out what they need before you donate food. Food needs change daily and are based on past donations or what is available at the local food bank.

2. Organize a #GiveHealthy Food Drive

People facing hunger are at a higher risk for diet-related disease such as obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Individuals with chronic disease need access to nutritious foods. #GiveHealthy enables people to donate fresh fruits, vegetables and other healthy food by making it easy and fun. Plan your next food drive using the #GiveHealthy organization.

3. Pull-Tab Canned Items

Most likely a child might not know how to use a can opener or even worse, the family may not have a can opener. When possible, donate low-sodium and no-sugar-added canned vegetables, fruit, meat, soup, pasta and beans with a pull-tab.

4. Money is Better than Food

Instead of buying groceries for the food pantry, consider giving cash. Depending on their partnerships, a food pantry can buy more food for the value of a dollar because they usually pay wholesale prices.

5. Consider Toiletries

Many families make the decision between essential toiletries and food to feed their children. Consider donating feminine hygiene products, diapers, laundry detergent, soap, shampoo, razors, toothpaste, toothbrushes and toilet paper.

6. Donate Your Unique Passion

Reach out to your local food bank and pantry to donate your time but more specifically, your passion.  While it is great to have people available to pack food bags for client pick-up, it’s even better to have people with passion. Here are examples of the passionate donations to the pantry where I work:

  • Elementary students practicing their instruments during client pick-up. We have experienced the sounds of flutes, guitars and even a baby grand piano while clients picked up their orders!
  • A college student brought her gift of photography to help with social media promotion of our free bi-weekly farmer’s market.
  • A senior gentleman built us new shelves to ensure safety of our volunteers.

7. Organize a Food Sorting Play Date at the Food Pantry

Call your local food pantry to determine when the next food donation is being delivered. Let the food pantry know you want to organize a volunteer day for kids. Older kids can inspect the food for expired product and damaged goods. Younger kids can organize the food by product and parents can carry heavy items to storage.

8. Plastic Grocery Bags

Plastic grocery bags usually are free when shopping. Help us reuse the plastic bags when packing up our client’s food by donating the bags.

9. Donate Garden Surplus

Even if you have one cucumber, drop it off! If everyone gave a cucumber or other garden surplus, there would be more than enough to go around. Remember, every piece of produce counts in the fight against hunger!

10. Unused Hotel Toiletries

Going on a business trip? Save your unused toiletries and drop them off at your local food pantry.

11. Get Social

Use your social media influence to let your friends know the local food bank is taking donations. Call your local food pantry and blast out their unique needs. Make sure to include a day, time and place for drop off.

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Clancy Cash Harrison

Clancy Cash Harrison, MS, RDN, FAND, is a TEDx speaker, author of Feeding Baby, and food justice advocate. You can find more information at her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.