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How to donate to a food bank

Donating to a local food bank is one of the most tangible ways to give back to the community. About 15% of Americans are food “insecure”, meaning they are not sure where their next meal will be coming from or how they will pay for it. Millions of children reside in these low income and/or struggling homes. But what are the best items to donate to a food bank? Can you donate cash, and how is it used? Here are some guidelines and suggestions.

Donating Cash to a Food Charity

For the biggest “bang for your buck,” skip the food altogether and donate cash. Food shelves, charities like Feeding America, and local pantries have the ability to purchase food, groceries and household supplies at wholesale price or cheaper from various companies and organization. Or they get donations from stores such as Kroger and Wal-Mart, and the cash helps them distribute those donated items.

That $10.00 you spend at a supermarket to purchase food to donate? If food shelf employees or a non-profit like Feeding America had that $10 to work with, the money could go further to buy significantly more food than you purchased in the store. Feeding America can serve anywhere from 5 to 10 meals with JUST ONE DOLLAR DONATED. Food banks also can use cash to buy fresh foods, like milk, eggs, and produce–which consumers can’t donate directly.

However, food, groceries, or hygiene items are always welcome as well as part of a donation. They just do not use cash. If you’re going to donate food, here are some things to keep in mind.

General Food Donation Guidelines

First of all, make sure the groceries you’re donating is non-perishable, which means that the food is “shelf stable” and won’t go bad for a period of months or years. Canned, boxed, and dry good groceries are most effective. As are paper goods, personal toiletries, or hygiene supplies like soap, detergent, or feminine items. This covers most of the food that’s found in pantries and that does not require refrigeration.

Find a legitimate charity or pantry to donate too.  There are national organizations like the Salvation Army, which as pantries and soup kitchens in most counties. They in fact assist tens of millions of low income Americans each year. Or try your local church, Catholic Charities, SVDP, or other charities that help the working poor.

When donating, always check the expiration dates. Expired food past a certain date won’t be put out for pantry clients, so don’t waste the time of the volunteers and employees who sort the food by donating things that will have to be tossed. Unfortunately, some people use food bank donations as an opportunity to clean out their pantries without looking carefully to make sure their donations have not expired–so don’t contribute to the problem and make sure your canned goods haven’t expired.

When considering items to donate, consider the local population of people who use the food shelf. If there’s a large population of people of a particular ethnicity, it’s helpful to donate food with that group in mind. If the food bank serves lots of children – and this is often the case – consider making donations that are kid-friendly. Try to give healthy items as well, and not “junk” food or snacks.

If at all possible, try to donate foods that are healthy and that meet USDA nutritional guidelines. Lower income people tend to eat inexpensive foods, and often these foods are highly processed and full of fat, sugar, and sodium. Look for sales on healthier canned products, cereals, pastas, and other nonperishables to donate. Try to avoid foods that are heavily processed and artificial.

Specific Items that Many Food Shelves or Pantries Need

Always consider asking someone at the charity if there’s a type of food or supplies they need, or check the website to see if this information is there. Salvation Army and most charities have staff or volunteers on site. Food pantries sometimes update their websites with specific items that they need, and find free food shelves near you to inquire at.

  • Canned Fruit. Food banks often have an abundance of canned veggies (especially peas, corn, and green beans) because these are inexpensive items that people tend to donate. Unfortunately, canned fruit is a little bit more expensive, and doesn’t get donated as often. Canned fruit often contains lots of nutrients (check the labels), and if it’s packed in water, it’s low in sugar. It also makes for an easy, kid-friendly snack. Similarly, applesauce is a coveted item. If possible, donate applesauce that’s fortified with vitamins and that doesn’t contain added sugar.
  • Pantry Basics. Food banks often have a hard time keeping basic items in stock, as people don’t think to donate these. Cooking oil–a basic for any pantry–is something that food shelves often need. Other basics to consider for donation: salt, sugar, flour, spices, baking soda, baking powder, and bread crumbs. Cake mixes and other baking mixes are also good donation items, as are bags of chocolate chips and similar fun baking items.
  • Tuna, Canned Chicken, and Other Canned Meats. Protein is expensive, and canned meats are a great way to keep protein in stock. Try to find low sodium products as well. Of course, some canned meats aren’t so healthy, so be sure to check labels.
  • Baby Supplies. Many pantries help lower income single mothers or fathers. They often need diapers, infant formula, baby wipes, vitamins, and similar goods that newborns or infants need.
  • Rice. Rice is a staple for people of many ethnicities, including Latinos and Asians. Many food shelves can’t keep it in stock.. Any variety will be appreciated.
  • Soup and canned chili. Food shelves usually get plenty of donations of condensed soup, but they get fewer donations for heartier soups. Try low sodium ones. Consider donating soups that are more like meals, or donate boxed soups. If possible, try to donate soups that are lower in sodium content.
  • Coffee and tea. These are popular items that food shelves often can’t purchase easily. Other drink mixes also make good donations.
  • Senior Commodities. Senior citizens and retirees often live on a fixed budget. They need ensure, nutritional supplements, adult diapers, single serve frozen meals, and more. Aging on Aging or Senior Centers often run their own local food banks which can be donated too.
  • Healthy Snacks. Good choices include granola bars, nuts, trail mix, and dried fruit. Parents are always looking for something healthy to give their kids, so consider kid-friendly snacks.
  • Toilet paper. This is one of the most basic needs there is, and it isn’t covered by food stamps.

Food banks play a crucial role in helping people meet their basic needs. Millions of Americans turn to them each year. Consider donating cash, groceries or food, and your donation will make a concrete difference in your community.


Jon McNamara is the CEO of needhelppayingbills.com, a company that he started in 2008 and that specializes in helping low income families as well as those who are in a financial hardship. He also found NHPB LLC, a company committed to helping the less fortunate. Jon and his team also provide free financial advice to help people learn about as well as manage their money. Every piece of content on this website has been reviewed by him before publishing and many of the articles he has personally written. Jon is the leading author for needhelppayingbils.