What food banks actually need

The height of summer may seem like an odd time to talk about food banks. After all, awareness campaigns about hunger and community needs tend to be particularly prevalent around November, when everyone is exhorted to donate so community families can have a nice Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner. But in fact, it’s not that simple — food banks operate year round and they have clients year round, and their needs can actually increase during the summer for the simple reason that school is closed and more children need food because they aren’t getting it through free or reduced-cost lunch programs. Which means that they need help from the public all the time, and it’s worth noting what kind of help best serves them.

As discussed above, one of the primary considerations when it comes to assisting food banks is seasonality. Spreading out donations over the course of the year ensures they go further, and loading up during the summer when supplies may be short is also advisable.

Most food banks want shelf-stable, nutritious foods packaged in paper, plastic, tin, or cardboard — no glass, which is easily broken. That means things that can easily be stored at room temperature that also offer high nutritional value (in terms of vitamins and minerals, etc). Canned vegetables, fruits, and beans are classic examples. Meals in a can or a box that can be reheated or reconstituted with water. Canned meats like tuna, but think bigger, to salmon or beef — tuna is a commonly-donated item and people get tired of it. Pure fruit juices in aseptic packaging. Remember to make sure all of those cans have pop tops for easy opening.

Some nut butters, like peanut butter. Basic staples. It’s always worth considering that people may have limited access to cooking facilities and not much time to cook, so foods that can be made easily and quickly — as well as cold, if necessary — are¬†a good thing. Spices. Low-sugar cereals (diabetes is an issue and not all donors consider low-sugar products). Pasta or rice in small bags (most food banks can’t repackage easily). Hot cereals that can be made with boiling water. Needless to say, expired, unlabeled, and dented or otherwise damaged goods should not be donated. A food bank is a place for people to get food, not a trashcan.

More than goods, though, most food banks want funds. This is for a variety of reasons. Firstly, they can direct their funds more appropriately to purchase what customers need and keep up stocks of basic staples they know do well in the community, rather than relying on haphazard donations.¬†Moreover, money donations can sometimes be paired with matching grants — a food bank could miss out on major funding if people are only giving food and supplies. Instead, offer direct financial support so the bank will benefit.

Furthermore, something else to be aware of: Food banks can and do negotiate bulk prices. Whether they’re working locally or having food shipped in, they don’t pay market rate for their food, including fresh produce, nonperishables, and anything else on their shelves. For sheer efficiency, it’s much more cost-effective to, say, donate $1.50 than it is to buy a can of beans. For those who are familiar with the idea of going to the store to buy $10-$20 worth of food and donate it, cutting a check to the food bank instead would be a better use of those funds — and they could be saved from month to month to be donated as a lump sum every quarter or every six months.

Some food banks also carry non-food items. In fact, a lot do. Donations of clothing in various sizes (especially plus sizes, which can be hard to obtain) are usually good choices, and new socks, underwear, and bras are also great things to donate. (Used undergarments shouldn’t be donated and in some cases won’t be accepted for reasons that should be obvious.) Blankets or sleeping bags are also helpful — but think sturdy, weatherproof, and easy to care for. Personal hygiene products — menstrual supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, soap, and so forth — can be really useful as well.

For that matter, pet supplies (wet and dry food along with collars, brushes, and so forth) are also appreciated. Some food banks hold periodic vaccination and flea clinic events and funds can be donated directly to those initiatives as well.

Moreover, baby supplies are a common need. Many low-income families have young children and can struggle to meet their needs — babies are pretty expensive. Donations of diapers, bottles, blankets, wraps, and other supplies are fantastic, along with items like gently used car seats, sealed new toys, teething supplies, and so forth.

Ultimately, if you’re not sure about what to get or you’re trying to decide what would be most beneficial for your food bank, go the obvious route: Ask them. Staffers are usually happy to talk with donors who want to make sure they’re making good choices when it comes to supporting the food bank, and they can provide information about chronic needs (like financial support) as well as short-term concerns (like a shortage in canned beans or a lack of diversity in the canned fruit selection).

And hey, while you’re at it, throw in a little chocolate — let’s not fall into the ‘poverty=suffering’ trap.

Image: Volunteer stocking celery at food bank, InteliusInc, Flickr