What Should You Donate To Food Banks? (Hint: No One Wants Tartar Sauce For Breakfast)

It’s a holly jolly time of year, but because not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to fill up their carts at the grocery store, you might be thinking it’d be nice to donate to your local food bank. And you’re right, it’s a very good thing for you to do. But not if you’re just going to unload the unwanted cans of tomato paste from the back of your pantry.

Think about it this way: What if you opened up your cupboards and saw only miles of garbanzo beans and pickled sardines? A good place to start, points out xoJane’s Deb Martinson, is to not give anything you wouldn’t want to eat yourself. Because there’s not a lot of choice at a food bank — you’re going to be handed a bag of food and you’ll have to figure out how to make that stuff into a meal.

So she suggests this idea: Give like a hungry person. What would you want to eat, using only non-perishable foods? Think up a day’s worth of food that you would totally chow down on and that’s what you should give to the donation bucket.

Some other great rules to go by:

Nobody wants dumb stuff: A container of candied fruitcake fruit is the example here. Sure, if someone is hungry enough to eat the rejected white elephant gift you got at the holiday party, they will. But it’s kind of horrible to just dump that on someone else. Ditto with exotic things like escargot and caviar — the average person is probably going to turn green at the thought of canned snails for breakfast.

Not everyone has a microwave or can opener: If you’re homeless, odds are you don’t have a microwave strapped to your back, so think about donating food that can be eaten on the go without cooking, like tuna, peanut butter, granola bars, crackers etc. Also consider that someone might not have a can opener, so shoot for those cans that have the pull-up top.

Perishable items will perish: This might seem like a no-brainer but it’s always a good reminder — any food that will go bad sooner rather than later if it’s not refrigerated is likely going to get thrown out at a food bank, unless it’s the kind that also prepares meals to serve.

Ask what you should give: On that note, there could be food banks that need specific items after perhaps receiving one too many cans of low-sodium tomato soup. Some might even ask you to give non-food items like toilet paper, soap, toiletries, diapers and pet food.

Thoughtfulness goes a long way: Yes, you should be giving hearty, healthy food to sustain a hungry person. But sometimes a nice little treat like candy or cookies can bring happiness where someone might not expect. Toss some treats in the next time you’re assembling your donation.

Of course, any donation is going to be welcomed and we’re not telling anyone what to do. It’s a good idea, however, to step back and imagine you’re the person receiving that food. Give what you would want to get.

For more tips on donating in general, read How To Not Suck… At Charitable Giving check out the source link below.


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  1. MarthaGaill says:

    It’s my understanding that the one thing food banks really need is a cash donation. It costs money to rent and operate the warehouses. I use an app called Instead to periodically donate to the North Dallas Food Bank. Quick and easy.

    • SingleMaltGeek says:

      And the cash doesn’t just help with the infrastructure and services; while peanut butter and oatmeal are pretty good staples, the specific org/location you choose may have a glut of those things, but really needs butter or milk for the next day or two.. Cash also enables them buy things (usually at a big discount over retail) that they need right now, but may not have enough of on hand.

  2. theoriginalcatastrophegirl says:

    also, if you or someone you know/work with has a membership to a warehouse club, pool your resources. when we do food drives at my office, i accept cash and return from sams/costco with receipts and food for the donation bin. $20 may not go very far at a retail grocery, but for several peoples’ $20 i can get a lot more value in cans of tuna, granola/protein bars, fruit cups, and pop top chef boyardee (which is better heated but is fine cold too)

  3. careycat says:

    Cash as some of the commenters has said, is indeed king. But if you HAVE donated the other items esp cans that homeless may not be able to open, fear not, some of that stuff goes to homeless shelters that provide meals for the homeless, and there are can openers there, I know, I’ve volunteered many times.

    But cash is king and I do applaud all the commenters here, what amazing generosity.

  4. Cara says:

    Alright, so I can’t actually search my Facebook wall for an article I read a month or so ago. It was a very touching story about a woman who overheard someone poking through a donation box who said something to the effect of how “those people won’t appreciate this food” because the food was gourmet, not just Kraft Mac&Cheese. That article stayed with me, and I really wish I could have linked to it.

    With that article in mind, I strongly disagree with item #1. Sure, just because you may be thinking ‘eeew, escargot’ and someone else may be thinking ‘poor people would never appreciate this wonderful escargot, they’re unrefined and uncultured’, the truth is that the people visiting a food bank is just like any other person. They have likes and dislikes just like me and you. While I would definitely be in the camp of ‘eew, snails’, someone receiving the package may have tears of joy because it’s one of their favorite foods that they can’t afford. So including luxury items may help raise someone’s spirits and help see them through a dark time. What constitutes “dumb stuff” really depends on each person. If it’s in good condition, still edible, and it’s something you’d eat, then donate away.

    While a can opener may be cheap, if it’s a choice between a can opener and one extra meal, it is easy to see that someone might choose the latter because it has a better short-term effect in reducing a family’s hunger. I see this as more of a “try to donate pop-cap cans if you can, but don’t stress too much if you can’t.”

    I think the best rule of thumb is to “donate what you would be willing to eat.” Don’t donate food (clothing, toys, etc) that should really go in the trash. Different food banks have different rules on accepting expired foods – as some foods are okay to eat even if the date is passed, it may still be okay to donate.

    I do love the suggestion of trying to include one luxury/snack item with each donation, because seeing that you get a bag of M&M’s, or some nice lotion, or organic vegetables, etc, can really brighten someone’s day.

    • SingleMaltGeek says:

      I think the idea is more that the item shouldn’t be one that a lot of people would toss rather than eat, because then it makes it harder to distribute the food on hand to everyone who needs it. So while I’m sure there are some homeless people who either know they like escargot or would be willing to try them, it becomes much more of a logistical challenge if you have a lot of items that aren’t acceptable to even 10-25% of your clients. I think that’s why they say to avoid unusual and specialty items like that.