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Would you feed your own kid the same food you donate to food pantries?

Last year at about this time, my daughter and I were in the grocery store, buying items for a local food drive. After I threw a few bags of brown rice in the cart, Tess asked me why brown and not white. “Because it’s healthier,” I answered, “and it’s what we eat.” Then I told her that we help people not only by donating food, but by making sure it’s healthy food. Food we’d actually eat ourselves.

Logic even a 6-year-old could understand. So why don’t more of us get it?

White rice is the least of it. Most donations to food pantries are chemical-filled, non-nutritive, far removed from real food. They’re whatever’s cheapest, on sale and, let’s face it, the rejects in the back of our cabinets. Our regional Girl Scout council this year is even encouraging people to buy Girl Scout cookies and donate them to local food banks. Call me a killjoy, but I think that’s absurd.

According to “Household Food Security in the United States”, a report just released by the USDA, almost 15% of households had trouble getting enough food at some point in 2009, the highest level of food insecurity since 1995. Another study, Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2010,” found that the number of people seeking emergency food assistance has increased 46% since 2006. And the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act now being debated in the U.S. House would pay for childhood nutrition programs by cutting food-stamp funding, a crisis of conscience for us all.

So, yes, I know. Any food is better than no food. But calories-in-lieu-of-nourishment isn’t sustainable. And it isn’t moral. Especially when you’re in a position to do something about it. So when we were shopping last year with a list from the food pantry that requested specific taco kits and other heavily processed foods, I found myself returning box after can after bag to the store shelf. It was seriously depressing to read the ingredients labels and know I would never feed them to my daughter. There was no way I was buying them for someone else’s child, either.

Which meant I shopped how I’ve been shopping for food pantries for years. Simple staples like the brown rice, dried beans, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, natural peanut butter, oatmeal. But this time Tess was along, and damn if her questions didn’t make me mull questions of my own. Did going off-list mean my donations would be wasted? Was I forcing my values on other people? Would my little contribution even matter?

The truth is, I don’t know. But I do know that this year — spurred in part by that aisle soul-searching — I’ve been donating cash instead of goods. Food banks take cash and buy in bulk or get companies to underwrite the cost, thus stretching those dollars up to tenfold. Those economies of scale make cash donations the best way to support the cause. Find your local food bank here — then check its credibility here or here — and ask what its donation multiplier is. See how far cash can go.

That brings me back to those Girl Scout cookies. (And reminds me to mention that I’ve got another Girl Scouts post coming soon.) Not only are Girl Scout cookies the antithesis of nourishment (among other nasty ingredients: highly processed GMO and planet-damaging oils). But if people instead donated the $3.50 cost of a box directly to a food bank, that money could buy a whole lot of actual food. Seems like a no-brainer.

Still, OK, there is appeal in selecting and donating tangible goods, especially because kids can help. And we’ll probably take part in at least one food drive this holiday season that requires a trip to the store. But there are other options, like donating garden surplus or volunteering to glean at a local farm (find interested food pantries through groups like AmpleHarvest.org or Plant a Row for the Hungry).

For we northeasterners without hoop houses or giant cold frames, those are donation opportunities for the next growing season, not now. But readers in warmer climes might be in luck. And all of us should ask ourselves if we’d want our kids eating the food we place in the donation box. Then choose accordingly.

Thoughts on food donations? Experiences to share? Does it matter what’s in the box?

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Vegetarian Foodie Fridays.

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{ 52 comments… add one }

  • Holly November 24, 2010, 6:21 am

    I was just talking to my husband about this very issue last night! I was commenting how we all got a list of items “needed” by our local interfaith organization and boxed mashed potatoes were on the list and I said, “But that’s not even real food!” He joked back that maybe I should have taken them an actual box full of organic potatoes.
    But seriously, how can I knowingly give food that I know is bad to people even if they are in need? So, in the end, I didn’t contribute to my company’s food drive.
    I did however participate in my daughter’s daycare food drive buy purchasing some Annie’s macaroni. Not the best food in the world, but I thought, it’s better than boxed potatoes!

  • April@The 21st Century Housewife November 24, 2010, 6:33 am

    This is an excellent, thought provoking article. And I do agree that a cash donation can sometimes be best. I volunteered putting boxes together for families at our church one year in co-operation with a local food bank. I was dismayed, but not surprised, to be told that many families who are receiving boxes don’t have the facilities (some are without proper accommodation with stoves etc) to cook nutritious food. Things like brown rice are good as most folks receiving the boxes do have access to a hot plate, but if you give cash, the food bank can tailor the donations to a family’s individual circumstances. I also think the point you raised – that often things from the back of the cupboard or that are cast offs, or the cheapest thing on the store shelf end up in the food bank box at the supermarket – is an important one. We need to give what we would like to receive if we were in those circumstances.

  • Kristia@Family Balance Sheet November 24, 2010, 7:47 am

    I think about this every time I make a food donation. I usually pull from my cupboards and donate things like tomato sauce, tuna, pasta. These things might not be perfect, but they are items the food bank is requesting.

    My neighbor volunteers at a local food bank. Over the summer, she would bring me fresh produce that a local farmer donated to the food bank. Nobody would take the fresh produce at the bank, so the bank gave it to the volunteers so it wouldn’t go bad. She would bring home bags of tomatoes, lettuce, and squashes and share it with the neighborhood.

    On a similar note, did you read about the school district in Colorado that has expanded their free breakfast program to all students? They wanted to eliminate the stigma of the program so offered it to everyone. What they were offering for breakfast was Lucky Charms and whole wheat donuts. What a great way for kids to start their day…dripping with sarcasm.

  • Dr. Susan Rubin November 24, 2010, 7:52 am

    My daughter had to bring in 10 non perishable items to school today for extra credit. Her social studies teacher is in a friendly competition with the other teachers to bring in the most food. They want to collect at least a “ton” for the food pantries this Thanksgiving.
    I would much prefer to see these kids growing a row for the hungry in their school garden and actually discussing the issue of hunger in their social studies classes. The last thing my school district needs is more competition.
    While at the supermarket purchasing the 10 items, I had the same conversation with my daughter, and we agreed to get food that she would eat. After all, its very possible that this food would be going to a 13 year old.

  • Milehimama November 24, 2010, 10:17 am

    Well, I am of two minds in this. Certainly I wouldn’t give food that was inedible, or candy.

    But. One reason for the boxed mashed potatoes could be that you can make it with hot water – either microwaved or from an electric kettle. I’ve lived in a motel room with no kitchen.

    We can’t assume that the clients of the food bank have the means or the knowledge to cook real food. It is a skill. It could be that the parents are working, leaving the 12 year old boy to make food for himself and/or siblings. It’s common – even in my middle class neighborhood SO MANY children are left on their own after school and on school off days. Kids age 8 and up. Kids that eat microwaved pizza rolls or fruit loops for dinner every night because they aren’t allowed to use the stove and don’t know how to, anyway.

    I’ve personally known more than one person who ate instant/add water foods because they were illiterate- they could not read a recipe for making making pancakes our of flour or cornbread out of cornmeal.

    If you worked two jobs, 16 hours a day – would you be able to come home and whip up real mashed potatoes for the kids? What if you didn’t have a stove or your electricity was turned off?

    I am not saying that real food and real ingredients are a poor choice, I’m just trying to explain why *I* choose to honor the food pantry requests for things like mac n cheese, Spam, etc.

    I do donate things like dried beans – especially pintos, I live in Texas – but I also donate food that we wouldn’t buy (but that are requested by the food pantry.) Foods such as pancake mix that require only water, cornbread mix that you just add milk to, instant rice, canned foods, macaroni and cheese. Because these are the foods that people eat and even if they are not the best choice, an elderly person or a kid could easily make them, and for so many people they are also comfort food.

    I’ve been that mom mixing up powdered milk in an old soda bottle each morning because we had no kitchen and no fridge so it had to be done right before breakfast. I know how hard it can be.

    One thing I would love to do someday is to offer cooking classes through the food pantries so that people could learn to cook inexpensive, real food.

    • Kelly November 27, 2010, 1:10 am

      The sentiments in this article are great and many good points are brought up but I really liked what Milehimama has to say here and I hope many read her points and take them to heart.

      I have taught a class like Milehimama references. The thing the students seemed most strapped for were: time, and respect afforded them for their hard work in difficult scenarios (I’ve raised kids in both food security and food insecurity and yeah, there’s a difference). And let’s be careful assuming that *by rote* they don’t have nutritional or cooking “knowledge”, something I see many well-intentioned people assuming but which I’ve found to be an incorrect and rather condescending assumption.

      Let’s donate and help while keeping those factors in mind.

    • Melissa Graham November 27, 2010, 12:39 pm

      Like Kelly, I have taught classes like Milehimama suggests. In fact, over the summer, Purple Asparagus partnered with the Department of Family Support and Services at their mobile health fairs. The Dept. gave each family who participated a bag full of ingredients through their mobile food pantry (which did include brown rice). We wrote and demonstrated recipes using the ingredients from the bag (with a few additions) that took 15 minutes or less to cook, including tuna, brown rice salad and a Whole Wheat Pasta with Broccoli Tomato Sauce that has since become a staple in our house. These are great for those who can read – the literacy issue is a heartbreaking deal breaker for cooking in too many cases.

      Chris, have you read Mark Winne’s book Closing the Food Gap? He writes eloquently on the problems inherent in food banks. It’s a terrific book.

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 11:13 am

      Kelly and Melissa, these classes sound like a great way to connect the dots. And yes, Milehimama, you bring up so many excellent points (which I just addressed in my general comment at the end of this thread). I always appreciate your insights here.

      Melissa, I haven’t read Winne’s book, but I’ve heard so much about it that I think it’s time I do.

    • Pia November 5, 2012, 9:12 pm

      I truly like your comment, i do not give junk food to the food pantry pantry but certainly donate items that I would never eat. I do not eat anything from cans; however, I always donate black beans, garbanzo, and other legumes because I know that they are very nutritive for kids, adults and elderly and most people like them. The Goya beans might not be organic, could probably be GMO (i’m totally ignorant on this subject) but I am sure they can satisfy most people and it is the most similar to proper food I can think from can. Nutrition means different things for different people and what matters is that the item provided you think will be good for someone. It is better food than no food at all.

  • Sandra November 24, 2010, 12:03 pm

    Milehimama, you are awesome.

    Chris makes wonderful points. A good question to ask yourself when donating is “Would I feed this to my kids?” But I think we also have to add “Would I feed this to my kids if I didn’t have the means, knowledge, and circumstances that I do now?”

    On a journalism fellowship in Los Angeles two years ago, I toured an apartment building owned by an infamous slumlord. These “apartments” were barely two rooms, some without kitchens, stagnant with moldy air, and usually housed two to four people, often children. They also were located where a grocery store was a couple bus rides away, not a walk down the street. Often a hot plate was all they had to cook on. I’m going to hope that if a food bank is making requests, it’s going to be for stuff they have determined people will actually use.

    And thanks, Chris. This inspires me to go and ask directly about the about-to-open food pantry in our town.

  • Amanda Dittlinger November 24, 2010, 12:49 pm

    I was thinking the same thing the other day. My chiropractor was doing a peanut butter drive for his organization. Seriously, just peanut butter. I haven’t donated yet because I’ve been making my own peanut butter from scratch using Crispy Peanuts, coconut oil/ peanut oil and local raw honey. I don’t even like commercial peanut butter anymore! But they need shelf stable ingredients. I could buy organic peanut butter with no additives, but I don’t even buy that for ourselves because making large batches from scratch is much more economical. So again, why would I buy something more expensive for the food bank that I don’t even buy for myself? Such a dilemma!

  • Susan R November 24, 2010, 2:10 pm

    I’ve been on the receiving end of someone cleaning out their pantry; i.e., food they didn’t want to eat but should be good enough for you. But I’ve never given food that I wouldn’t eat myself, so have tried to give only healthy items. BUT the posts on living situations I can only imagine, but never lived them, have given me a greater understanding of why people may need a box of instant potatoes, or some such things. Once again my knowledge base has been broadened by others’ insight. Thank you all.

  • Kira November 24, 2010, 3:39 pm

    I completely understand your desire to give only good/healthy items to food drives. On the other hand, as others have already pointed out, often those healthy items are passed over for the processed items that you, personally, would never touch.

    I am the unwilling recipient of processed items because the BF’s mother shops the sales at places like Price Chopper, WalMart, Aldis, etc. and every time we see her she bestows bags and bags of junk on us. (I am not allowed to protest, as this is apparently her “thing” and to speak up would offend her.) Instead of letting this go to waste, I have offered it up on re-use-it sites, or given it away during the mail carriers’ food drive. I can’t bear to let it go to waste, and the copious replies I get to my offers on the re-use-it boards indicate that there are many hungry people who can indeed make use of it.

    We cannot change the system or the status quo simply by sending a couple organic or unprocessed items to a food bank. There are far deeper issues at the root of the problem whereby the needy consume poor quality or low-nutrient foods. While I will not go out of my way to buy processed items for a food drive, I will keep donating unwanted items to those who are grateful for them.

  • Cyndi November 25, 2010, 2:01 pm

    I used to work in a social service agency and we had a small food pantry. It was just a walk-in closet. I’m not sure where the source of the food was but I believe it was varied, including donations from retail stores. People with homes were allowed to shop there once a month and get a bag of food. I worked with homeless clients and I was able to use my discretion to give them what they needed. Obviously they couldn’t deal with a full bag of groceries so I’d give one or two things at a time, at any time interval. For example, one of my clients told me some things that made me realize he was hypoglycemic. So I found him a plastic (not glass, which is heavy and breakable) jar of peanut butter and encouraged him to eat a spoonful or two when his blood sugar was feeling off. I knew I couldn’t change the meals he got from the shelters, but at least I could supplement.

    The most important thing for our little food pantry was nothing perishable. Fresh potatoes would have gone bad pretty fast in a closet with bad air circulation. And we didn’t have enough turnover to do it anyway.

    There are food pantries who specialize in fresh food. Petaluma Bounty is one example (very close to my home). In addition to growing food for a low-income CSA program, they encourage gleaning and will send people to pick unwanted fruit.

    Yes, I donate stuff I don’t want from my pantry. Things that I bought and decided I don’t like (I usually buy in bulk). Things that have an ingredient that we figured out after buying one or more of us is allergic to. Stuff guests left behind. Things friends gave away that we don’t want. Etc. I figure if it’s for sale in a store, someone will want it, even if I don’t. But I wouldn’t purchase junk for the purpose of giving it away.

  • Karina November 25, 2010, 5:28 pm

    Yes we do. We tend to choose things from our own pantries if we are doing a “stuff the bus” or donating at the store–that means organic, whole grain, etc. But even better is to make a donation right to a food pantry, because they can do a lot with even just a few dollars every month. We have two that we regularly support–one in our home state of Maine that is called “The Good Shepherd Food Bank”, and the other is the San Francisco Food Bank, which we do in name of a friend of ours who passed away because he used to support the SF Food Bank as well.

    It’s easy to remember to help feed people in need at this time of year, but I always think about the fact that there’s no special season when it comes to hunger…especially when it comes to hungry kids.

  • Melodie November 26, 2010, 5:35 pm

    I love the way you think Christina! If I end up donating these kinds of foods it is because someone else bought them and didn’t use them. I have donated items from family members and clients’ cupboards that would constitute empty-calorie/junky foods, but I personally only donate good things when I myself buy the food. I am a believer in not wasting food so in those cases I will donate it because I think having something to eat is better than having nothing at all.

  • Annie @ PhD in Parenting November 26, 2010, 5:44 pm

    Great post! I wrote a post on a similar topic last year called “Should you donate Kraft Dinner to the Food Bank?” http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/12/22/should-you-donate-kraft-dinner-to-the-food-bank/

    I always donate money. However, when I do donate food I try to ensure it is things that we would eat or do eat. If something is on sale while I’m shopping, I might buy 2 and drop one in the food bank bin. I sometimes donate things that are not necessarily “healthy” but that I think might be appreciated, like Advent Calendars.

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 10:53 am

      Annie, yes, I saw that. Great post. And I like your idea about the advent calendars. Another friend pointed out that we can also give non-perishables like toiletries and diapers. All good things to think about.

  • Martini Mom November 27, 2010, 1:35 am

    I never go off list, for the reasons people above point out: there’s not always the means or time to prepare whole foods. (Heck, it’s hard for *me* to find the time sometimes.) But I do always purchase the best options I can find that fit within what’s been requested. For example, I’ll buy the canned beans, but they’re going to be the *organic* canned beans.

    The other day I was renting a movie from Blockbuster for my son, and when I checked out they asked if I wanted to spend an extra $2 to donate a goodie bag to a shelter for teens. Inside the goodie bag was a 1-liter bottle of soda and two ginormous boxes of candy. I was so shocked, I just stared at the woman checking me out. Seriously?! Soda and candy? I politely declined.

  • Cyndi November 27, 2010, 1:08 pm

    I wanted to comment on the literacy aspects. I agree, this is a dealbreaker for so many. Or someone may be completely literate (college-educated even) but not be able to read English. (I’m sure many programs will have materials in Spanish or other commonly spoken languages for their area, but there will be less common ones as well as ones you may not expect…not all immigrants from Mexico speak Spanish, for example, they may instead speak their pre-conquest native language.)

    My 5 year old loves to cook and can follow recipes that she can remember (or be reminded of). She sightreads many words, knows numbers and letters, but can’t read directions. I haven’t done it yet, but have wanted to put together some simple recipes with pictures and keywords.

    For those people who offer classes like the ones mentioned above, this could be incorporated in such a way as to give those without full literacy skills enough aid to be able to do the recipe, especially if they learned the recipe in a class and only need reminding (and they’d have more sophisticated cooking skills than a child). It would also help English learners. It would have to be incorporated into the regular handouts for everyone because most adults do not volunteer their inability to read, and you don’t want to call them out in a class anyway.

  • Jenny November 29, 2010, 10:08 am

    I understand this completely and see if from the other side. I work for a Campus Kitchen, recovering food that would otherwise go to waste and using it to serve the community. Many of our clients are diabetic, overweight, or have other health issues. It’s very hard to balance not letting donated food go to waste with serving healthy meals!


  • Heather@Food Ponderings November 29, 2010, 11:32 am

    My husband and I have had a few of these conversations lately. We recently had a Scouting for Food drve in our town, so my husband went to Trader Joe’s and bought several kinds of nuts, dried fruits, brown rice, cans of beans, and canned chili. All organic, and what we would be likely to have in our pantry as well. They are nutrient dense, and even someone with just a hot plate should be able to use them just fine.

    If yu’re buying pasta, what difference does it make if you get the whole grain version vs. the enriched flour kind, at least in terms of cooking it? Same with jarred sauces, etc. I’d much rather get the kinds of pantry staples I would eat instead of just the super-processed cheap garbage out there.

    And I did make a money donation to my CSA farm because they are hooking up with their local food pantry to provide organic & local produce to the poor. How could I not?

  • Melissa Graham November 29, 2010, 12:48 pm

    Warning: Semi-shameless pandering about to commence. Heather raises a great idea of donating to food-related charities. When considering your holiday/end of year giving, don’t forget smaller organizations in your communities. The food depositories are a great resource, but have a lot of funding whereas there are many smaller organizations doing great work, including providing free cooking education like my own Purple Asparagus in Chicago, that operate on shoestring (threadbare at that) budgets. Okay, I’ll shut up now.

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 11:19 am

      Melissa, feel free. Purple Asparagus does important work, as do the countless other grassroots groups in all our communities. So, yes, let’s remember them as well.

  • sarah henry November 29, 2010, 1:08 pm

    Great post, Christina, and I read it right after I put together a bag of grocery items — dried beans, canned tomatoes, and pasta among them — for my local food drive.

    It’s a complex challenge with no easy answers, as you point out, and as other readers have noted in their comments.

    Thanks for raising the matter, especially at this time of year.

  • Bri November 29, 2010, 2:57 pm

    A couple of thoughts. First, let me say that I completely agree with the premise in theory, Christina. And years ago — when I worked in Community Service and Programs for the Girl Scouts! — I ran many programs teaching kids how to donate appropriately to food banks. (For example, encouraging them to find whole-grain pasta, a good-quality bottled marinara sauce, and some low-sodium canned vegetables so that they’d be donating an entire meal at a time.)
    BUT. Besides all the other issues raised by astute people like Milehimama, another reason food pantries often specifically want those non-perishable items that are full of things that make us cringe is that, well, they’re a) shelf-stable enough to really, really last — which is super important for the people RUNNING the food distribution. They can’t store many fresh or less processed items and still maintain their codes for cleanliness, freshness, etc. And b) many of the clients are familiar with those items and will choose them and eat them. I know it sounds absurd, but again I bring up the dignity aspect. Just because we want to think that the people in need of food will happily eat whatever we give them — and of course be happy if we give them BETTER food — often they are just looking for something comforting and familiar, and Kraft mac n cheese might be it. Crazy as it may sound to those who haven’t experienced it, clients will not eat a new item if they are afraid they won’t like it.
    And to the Girl Scout thing: I get your point. But here’s another angle. Each box of cookies sold by a Girl Scout helps that girl and her troop pay for access to programs and experiences, boosting her education and enrichment and giving her opportunities. The program you’re talking about was dreamed up as a way to help girls sell more cookies by giving people who won’t buy cookies for themselves (because of health reasons, etc) an excuse to buy the cookies for someone else. And no, those people won’t usually just donate $4 to the troop. They will, however, buy cookies for a homeless child or for a food pantry or for the troops… So the purchase of the cookies, whether you like their ingredients or not, does something valuable for the girls. AND again I say, yes, we want people in need of food to have the best food they can have. But every once in a while, for the Love of God, let them have a cookie, too. The rest of us can, and they should as well.

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 10:55 am

      Bri, I hear you on shelf-stability, but a lot of less processed items (rice, beans, oatmeal) store just fine for the long term. And of course there are much healthier versions of standard canned/boxed goods like soups and cereals. Many of which could still seem “familiar” and thus preserve that sense of choice and dignity. So I don’t see it as an either/or thing. (Also: The Kraft Dinner post that Annie linked to above has an interesting take on the idea of “comfort food.”)

      About the Girl Scout cookies and the money supporting troops: I was waiting for someone to bring that up! I’ll actually be addressing that in a post soon, so stay tuned. But I’ll say now that of course everyone deserves special treats. I just think this is a misguided way to provide them. But, again, more soon…

  • Heather@Food Ponderings November 29, 2010, 2:57 pm

    Shoestring cooking classes! I like the idea quite a bit, especially as our income is likely to tank just after the holidays unless Congress extends unemployment again. But I digress.

    When I was in college, I literally lived on $25 a week without much in the way of cooking skills. I ate a lot of beans and rice, super cheap mac and cheese (the store brand kind for .33 cents a box), tuna fish, etc. I realize that for some, this was probably a big budget, but I had never experienced it before. I didn’t go to a food pantry, but friends helped me out quite often. Now that we’re going to have to tighten our belts soon, it would be nice to have some better ideas to stretch our food dollars, but hold true to the ideals we hold as much as possible. Having a veggie CSA subscription helps quite a bit, but it’s not enough.

  • The Yummy Mummy November 30, 2010, 8:47 am

    This is what I love about you and your blog. You totally get me to think. I hadn’t really thought about the food that goes to food pantries and now I will. Your Halloween post was another one. I didn’t have a philosophy about how much candy my kids should eat, but after your post I thought it through and got one. (Okay, I let them go nuts and eat all they wanted, but still, I had a philosophy!)

    In my post, I wasn’t talking about you, or calling you a food nazi, or boring or whatever. I was talking more about pundits, politicians, legislators, people who want to make changes, but do so without any kind of love or passion for food or food culture. They see these town council bans and zoning ordinances as a way to make a name for themselves. But they don’t love food and it shows and they don’t help citizens love food and for me, that’s a problem.

    You have the love and this post proves it. You think about food and what it means. Your passion comes from that. Sure, we disagree about the how to’s sometimes, but I’ve never been here and not been inspired to think, re-examine, take stock, examine my own motivations, even when I disagree. That’s your gift. This community would be not nearly as interesting without it. And I’m a loyal fan (and friend) because of it.


    • Christina November 30, 2010, 10:27 am

      Wow, Kim, thanks. I’ve been working on (belated) responses to other comments in this thread, and will post those in a short bit. But I had to respond to yours now because, well, that’s quite a nice thing to say.

      And too funny about your post (this great, thinky one). I really didn’t think you were talking about me, but even if you had been, that’s cool. We’re all in this together. And those other folks? The limelight-seekers? Flash-in-the-pans, I tell you. Flash-in-the-pans.

  • Christina November 30, 2010, 11:01 am

    Such a great conversation, everyone. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and experiences. Several of you mentioned inadequate kitchen facilities. I know this is an issue, for the homeless and transitional, especially. But my sense, from working supper programs and sorting donations at our regional food bank’s collection warehouse, is that a lot of recipients are working poor and low-income folks who do have proper kitchens.

    I don’t have any hard numbers, though, so I wonder how that breaks down for the average food pantry — which percentage of folks have the facilities to prepare meals and which don’t. Does anyone know?

    The literacy issue is an eye-opener, something I hadn’t fully considered. The same with older people or young kids being unable to cook except with a microwave. I really appreciate the perspectives of people who’ve worked in or used food pantries, because, truly, that makes me feel even better about giving cash. Then the pantries can tailor food purchases to their specific clientele. And hopefully everyone gets a better balance of food that way.

    Kristia, that’s really too bad about the fresh produce from your friend’s food bank. As Cyndi mentioned, some food banks specialize in perishables. Others are just set up to deal better not only with storage and distribution, but also with providing information about storage and prep at home. That’s why I wouldn’t ever donate fresh produce without first checking with the food bank. (The links at the end of the post are good sources for finding food pantries willing and able to deal with perishables.)

    Kira, absolutely, yes, there are much bigger issues at play. But my feeling is that food-pantry donations are something tangible and immediate, you know? Maybe just a tiny difference, but at least something while the wheels of progress creak along.

  • Miranda November 30, 2010, 12:38 pm

    I work at a Food Bank now and will say that cash is king. We can buy $5 worth of food for every $1 you donate — or would spend on rice or beans at the store to put in the barrel — and can make sure that the food we get IS the healthiest, freshest (real potatoes!) food there is.

    Our food bank doesn’t distribute soda, energy drinks and candy that’ are donated, but we do our best to not discourage donations of any kind. So it’s not something we share with the wide world. But we see more and more of the brown rice, black beans and low-salt soups that we’ve steadily been asking for over the years. Things are changing, but slowly.

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 8:17 pm

      Miranda, this is so heartening. How wonderful not only that you’re able to buy and distribute wholesome food, but that people are responding to your requests for healthier food donations. Love this. Curious to know: Where is your food bank?

      • Miranda November 30, 2010, 8:23 pm

        It’s in Alameda County, near San Francisco. We are actually among the food banks nationwide who also run “virtual food drives,” which let people feel like they’re filling a cart with wholesome food and they donate at the end. They can really see the difference between what they may pay at Safeway or Costco vs. what we pay through our donation/purchasing channels.

        We’re also doing something for the holidays that you all might think is fun? You can send an e-card with a cute message that you’d like a donation to the food bank in your honor rather than a gift this year. The idea came from one too many sweaters from my mother-in-law … I wanted a way to tell her that I love her, and I appreciate her thinking of me, but I want her to give something that’s REALLY needed!

        That’s at http://www.accfb.org/gift, if anyone’s interested. We could really use the help this time of year as donations are down a bit and demand is climbing even as the recession is “officially” over.

        • Christina November 30, 2010, 8:50 pm

          Miranda, I’ve heard of virtual food drives, but hadn’t realized they work that way. What an effective strategy. Also love the e-cards. (And I’m with you on the sweaters.) Thanks so much for sharing these details.

  • Bettina at The Lunch Tray November 30, 2010, 5:46 pm

    Just got a chance to read this and was reminded of my daughter’s field trip early this month to our local food back, a fifth-grade service project. I asked what kinds of food she’d helped to sort and pack, and the answer was . . . candy! It was just after Halloween and apparently this is how people were cleaning out their cupboards. I understand the desire not to waste food, but totally agree with your premise that the poor should not be our nutritional dumping ground. (Along those lines, I once heard an NPR report on the utterly impractical items that were donated to food banks, including a can of quail eggs, grass jelly and jackfruit in syrup. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120760895 )

    • Christina November 30, 2010, 8:36 pm

      Bettina, yes, the Halloween candy donations drive me batty. When I wrote my Halloween candy post, one reader, Bri, commented that Halloween candy can lift spirits for people in tough situations, especially kids who can’t participate in the usual traditions because of money or circumstance. I get that, and I think mindful donations geared toward celebrations are fine. But donating just to dump unwanted candy? Not so much.

      • Bri December 1, 2010, 9:53 am

        Yup…and I still take that stance…but ONLY for mindful donations. Which means you have to 1) seek out an organization that will handle the candy/treats appropriately; 2) seek permission from them to donate your candy; and 3) hopefully be tasteful about it. I actually exempt food banks from this rule, because they are usually short of what they really need and shouldn’t be wasting precious time and resources sorting and storing candy, of all things. My original comment was geared more towards domestic violence shelter programs, homeless shelters, and other places where by and large, the residents’ nutritional needs are being dealt with in other ways, but their freedom to go out and be among others for parties, trick-or-treating, etc. is limited. That’s a really important distinction to understand. Meet the food need first, the emotional need later.

        • Christina December 1, 2010, 10:02 am

          Thanks, Bri, for the additional insights. That strategy makes beautiful sense.

  • gary December 8, 2010, 4:20 pm

    For those of you who’d rather see the food you donate to the needy in your community be on the healthy side, go out and buy (or if you’re in the south, harvest) produce. Then visit http://www.AmpleHarvest.org and find a food pantry near you.

    If they are in our registry, they put themselves there so they could accept produce and other local donations.

    BTW… be sure to tell them you found them at AmpleHarvest.org. Also, send an email to IShared@AmpleHarvest.org and let us know what you donated… we love to hear from you.

    • Christina December 8, 2010, 6:24 pm

      Gary, thanks for stopping by and sharing that e-mail address.

  • Christina January 15, 2011, 11:28 am

    For anyone following this thread: I just put up a new post with a link to an NPR story about how food pantries deal with the onslaught of junk food. Details here: Food donations revisited: Dealing with the junk.

  • Nancy January 23, 2011, 10:32 am

    Yes! Thank you (and your commenters) for expressing so well what I’ve been feeling. There was also a piece on All Things Considered recently about this very topic. A food pantry manager they interviewed agreed that it’s a tough thing to balance, and said one concern is that the folks bringing junk food also often bring some more nutritionally sound foods. They worry that if they turn the less appropriate foods away, the folks who brought them might not come back with healthier options.

    • Christina January 23, 2011, 11:07 am

      Nancy, I think that’s the NPR piece I mention in the comment before yours (with a link to another post and that story). Good to see this getting some attention, but it’s so frustrating that food pantries need to walk on eggshells like that. Might not be such a bad thing to speak up and call it education.

  • Kris @ Attainable Sustainable May 11, 2011, 11:40 pm

    We see this not at our local food bank, but the youth center where local kids often come to get a meal. People donate processed cheese and lunch meat, white bread, and as you said, the crap at the back of their cupboard. The grocery store donates the stuff nobody buys. The flip side of this is that when there was a case of V-8 on hand, the kids thought it was gross and wouldn’t drink it.

    I’ve got issues with the crap that’s considered allowable food for folks on food stamps/WIC, too – but that’s a whole ‘nother rant.

  • James October 19, 2012, 9:42 pm

    Why do schools want parents to bring in food? Where does it go? Do they use it all? I never see the need. Do food banks give this to people to survive so they can live another day for drugs? Who eats and cooks this stuff?

    • Christina October 19, 2012, 11:11 pm

      James: Can you clarify? I didn’t say anything about schools asking parents to bring in food. And regarding your question about who gets food from food pantries… Are you serious? Plenty of people in need, that’s who.

  • Chris November 5, 2012, 5:48 pm

    This is something I’ve thought about as I have food intolerance issues.. what if I was indigent again? What if I couldn’t afford raw almonds and apples and grass fed beef; and Ramen noodles were once again my main source of sustenance?.. what if I couldn’t afford food and I had to rely on what other people thought was sufficient foodstuffs for me?… scary stuff… my health is crazy different depending on what I eat…

  • Rocio November 5, 2012, 9:43 pm

    James,I don’t do drugs. I’m not a freeloader. My husband works 14 hr days, is back in school and works as a handyman when he can find work. I give flute and Spanish lessons between homeschooling 5 out of 7 kids. We are the working poor. It’s not easy begging for food. It doesn’t come naturally to us but when your kids look at your and and say they’re hungry you do what you have to. My husband was making 75,000 a yr. He was laid off and was blessed with a job 2 mo later making 35,000. We didn’t choose this. With overtime we can afford our mortgage and we also tithe and give to missionaries and to others in need bc we know what its like. We,James,are your neighbors,relatives and friends. Look passed your prejudice and stereotypes. It makes you sound ignorant.

  • jen December 3, 2012, 11:25 am

    My family has been relying on help from our local food pantry to make it through a difficult year. They *require* us to take a certain amount of things we wouldn’t usually eat because they’re unhealthy (canned ravioli, ramen) and also let us pick & choose from shelves with various categories of food (cereal, veggies, misc. canned goods). We are always delighted to find healthy options (low-salt soup, cereal that isn’t loaded with sugar, tofu, curry paste, etc). I would scoop up that hypothetical can of quail eggs in a second; my 5-year-old would think they were a wonderful snack.

    I’m very grateful for the people who donate healthier items; it’s hard enough to have to ask for help to feed my kids, without the added guilt of knowing I’m feeding them junk.

  • MB February 23, 2013, 5:05 am

    Tonight we saw a homeless man staying in our local post office to avoid the cold. He was very quiet in the corner, trying not to be noticed. We had stopped by to mail cookies to relatives when my daughter and I saw him. Our car was loaded up, ready for deliveries. She put on her tunic and gave him a box of Trefoils & a bottle of water. His face lit up and he introduced himself to us. You could tell he was so moved by a 6 year old doing something so nice for him. I’m sure he would have liked regular food (which we didn’t have on us or would’ve given him that too) but there was something about this special treat that really made his day. This personal delivery I thought was a true gift of caring from my daughter – much better than when we just drop off cases at the fire department.

  • Julie B. October 31, 2013, 2:39 pm

    This article also reminds me– when you’re shopping for food pantry items, don’t forget about people with food allergies!! Last year I donated 2 bags worth of gluten free items and when the food pantry volunteer asked about them, I told her that I have celiac disease so I know that if my family were to fall on hard times and need help from the local food pantry, I would probably be out of luck since most donations contain gluten and/or wheat.

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