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Best foods to donate to food pantries

This Saturday is the day the U.S Postal Service is collecting foods in our area. We set them near our mailbox and they collect and donate to the local food pantries.

Non-perishables are requested. So far I've got a bag of rice, peanut butter and assorted canned veggies. There must be something I'm overlooking.

What foods do you often contribute that give the most nourishment-bang for the buck?

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  1. I'm glad someone posted about the postal service food collection! I hear that many food pantries are at all-time low supplies.

    I plan on giving canned fruit, especially pineapple in natural juices too. Also those little cups of apple sauce. And various canned soups. Possibly some boxed items like couscous.

    I'm vacillating on giving things like salsa, mainly because it's in glass jars. I'll have to check their rules for donating again...

    1. I've always heard that baby foods are a good one. Boxed macaroni and cheese is also apparently popular.

      Our local radio station has a big drive every year and the food bank people always come on saying one thing they're always short on is women's sanitary products (if yours supplies those as well, it may be worth considering)

      2 Replies
      1. re: alexajord

        The P.O. has asked only for food products.

        I just thought of powdered milk (which when mixed with fluid milk and water can stretch it quite tastily).

        I'm trying to think of high-protein items as well as veggies and fruit, but in commonly-used foods.

        1. re: toodie jane

          what about canned tuna or salmon? lots of protein and good stuff in those...
          or canned stews and chilis? may not be too chow-ish, but probably just the ticket for those in need...

      2. To be honest, while those sorts of food collection drives are consciousness raising, the best way to get bang for your buck is to send the charity a cheque. If you buy food at retail, you're paying retail markups and taxes, then adding to their workload to figure out what you've sent them and sort it all out.

        Here's what Toronto's Daily Bread Foodbank says:
        Fund drives: Because Daily Bread buys food in bulk, we can purchase twice as much food with your dollar than you can in a grocery store. Not only that, but food gets to those who need it faster because it doesn’t have to be sorted.

        During food drives, the grocery stores here often have little pre-wrapped packages available to be purchased for donation -- they usually contain a few basic staples like pasta, pasta sauce, rice, cooking oil, canned fruits and vegetables. It seems likely that those were the things the food banks wanted, since they worked with the stores to coordinate the drives.

        7 Replies
        1. re: Jacquilynne

          yes, but this is about a pre-organized drive. I do agree that a check is a more efficient way for a given pantry to buy, but Saturday, millions of folks will be putting out food. Trying to get a conversation going about the best choices.

          Thanks for the reminder to donate $ as well.

          1. re: toodie jane

            We donate money to our local food bank as well as Second Harvest, but I also go through my pantry periodically, and any canned goods that I've had for a while that haven't reached their sell-by date go to the food bank, on the theory that I'm probably never going to eat them. Ditto for things I bought by accident and was too lazy to return. When my daughter developed a peanut allergy, several unopened jars of peanut butter went to a food drive. The point being that money is the most useful way to donate, but if you've got food that you're not going to eat, you might as well give it to someone who can use it.

            Most of what I give is the kind of thing that food banks typically ask for, e.g. canned beans, canned fish, peanut butter. But I also try to include one "luxury" item, like a jar of jam or a box of good tea bags, because man does not live by canned sardines alone!

              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                I give instant oatmeal which is easy to make and nourishing, and Celestial Season teas because they are soothing. They must get sick of pasta, tuna, etc but I include that too. It's good to check what sort of cooking facilities they have.

              2. re: jlafler

                I always include so-called luxury items when I donate, too; when you're down and out they're more like necessities. I used to sort donations at a food pantry in Ohio and was amazed at the sort of crap we got: rusty cans, obviously back-of-the cupboard items, cleanouts, etc. with the general message that "well, I wouldn't eat it, but it's certainly fine for THEM!" Oh, please...

                Anyway, I support our local foodbank here in Maine and still forgot about the Post Office collection until I got home from work at 2am today. My bags were full of canned tuna and salmon, cans of soup and veggies, dry pasta, pasta sauce, a few "kits" like boxed pasta salad and nachos, tea bags...pretty much what was left from last week's grocery shopping. I also included boxed cookies, chocolate, drink mix, and some of my cats' surplus of treats and food. I forgot about sanitary napkins or I'd have grabbed some of those too.

                Excellent topic--glad to see so many responses. It's obscene that anyone goes hungry in America. Thanks to all of you for sharing what you've got! (and yes, foodbanks can buy food very cheaply, so send yours a check now and then. It'll make your chowdowns and everyone else's more enjoyable!)

                1. re: Kinnexa

                  My general rule of thumb is "If I wouldn't eat/use it, I don't give it."

                  At the food pantry where I volunteered years ago, we had a shelf up above the door from the kitchen down to the basement. it was called the "Shelf of Infamy," and was filled with all kinds of REALLY old packages of jello and just generally weird stuff. There was for the longest time a can of "cuttlefish in spicy sauce" up there. Then one afternoon a woman came in, and while we were packaging up her food box she was wandering around the house (we didn't normally allow folks in the kitchen area, mostly for safety reasons), and she saw that can of cuttlefish in spicy sauce and asked if she could have it. (I'm pretty sure she was on drugs...) We gave it to her; she survived it, evidently, because she was back about a week later for another food box--although we didn't have an more cuttlefish in spicy sauce to give her.

              3. re: toodie jane

                Are you an Arlingtonian? I ask because I got the notice then too the Postal Service works with the Arlington Food Bank at this same time, although maybe it is a national thing. If you want to donate more to they are critically low, there was an article in Washington Post and they have a list on their website of things they need:
                Plastic bags
                Canned tuna
                Cereal seems to be the big one there are more...


                But a lot of these places have websites with their needs.

                Anyway over now, but they are on four mile run and can arrange for times for you to drop off more if you wanted.

            1. I am so glad you posted this! I had forgotten about the pick up since I got the notice last week.
              So far I have a couple boxes of crackers, dried pasta, a couple jars of pasta sauce, a box of Bisquick mix, instant oatmeal, various canned veggies, canned beans, and canned tuna.

              3 Replies
              1. re: ArikaDawn

                Having been in a position where I had to visit a food bank a few times, I can offer a little advice. Foods that need other ingredients to prepare.....hamburger helper, things that use milk, butter, eggs, etc. aren't the best. Believe me, when I broke down and resorted to the food bank to feed my kids, I didn't have any cash at all to buy those extra ingredients. Things like the Kraft mac and cheese that needed milk were useless except to use the macaroni for something else. Canned tomatoes, meats, fruits, and vegetables were awesome! Pastas, oatmeal, and other items that required only the addition of water to cook were a big help as well. Pasta sauces, salsas, soups, etc. were really nice because you could create a meal out of bits of this and that using those or, in some cases, eat it alone or over pasta.

                1. re: alliedawn_98

                  I think you qualify for having the last word. Thank you for sharing. Most of us would not have figured out the need to give foods that do not need additional ingredients.

                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    I have seen boxed macaroni-and-cheese that has a cheese sauce packet that doesn't require additional ingredients. I think it was Kraft Deluxe or something like that...

              2. My local food bank makes a point of saying that they appreciate peanut butter but they NEVER have enough jelly. That really stuck with me because of course jelly isn't all that nutritious, I wouldn't think to give it, but if that's the only way kids will eat the peanut butter....

                2 Replies
                1. re: GretchenS

                  Good point on the jelly, but it's important to make sure it's not in a glass jar.

                  I always buy peanut butter in bulk at Sams club, it comes in a pack of two, so I keep one and donate the other. Other things I typically give are cans of soup, boxes of cereal, pasta, tuna, and rice.

                  I'm glad someone brought up the point that it's much more efficient to just give money. Your local food pantry is a great place to ask for donations to in lieu of gifts for birthdays, graduations, and any other gift-giving holidays that may arise.

                  1. re: GretchenS

                    Hunh, that's interesting -- so I guess my jam idea (above) may have been a better idea than I realized!

                  2. "There must be something I'm overlooking."

                    Absolutely. And a quick glance through the replies, looks like everybody else missed it also. Powdered milk. Lots of other great ideas here though.

                    1. Thanks for this post! I plan to give canned chili and stew because contain protein, are ready to heat/eat, and can be given to homeless food bank users, or those who live in shelters (no cooking facilities). And I'd also like to put in another mention for cash donations: our food banks have long-term contracts to purchase bulk commodities, so the prices are locked in, and they are not (quite) yet feeling the pinch of the rise in, say, rice prices.

                      1. I am a member of the St Vincent De Paul society and we prefer canned goods and dry nonperishables. breakfast cereal, starches(rice,beans, pasta-noodles) potato mixes.

                        Canned spaghetti sauce, Kraft dinners, canned soups are always useful, as are canned vegetables and fruit. Cake/dessert mixes do well as does baking mix, peanut butter, plus flour, sugar, salt etc.

                        It is not necessary spend extra on organics as most recipients prefer the national brands that they recognize.

                        Please do not clean out your pantry and give spoiled/outdated food, sauces and other items that have expired and specialized items that you did not like or use, as food pantries have little use for them.

                        1. My Post Office bag is ready to be put out tomorrow morning. I've got chunky style canned soups (with a reasonable amount of protein per serving), those Knorr's noodle sides, canned fruit, stewed tomatoes, and cans of beefaroni/spaghettios (because I loved those as a kid!)

                          While a check is definitely preferable for a charity, I think the Post Office is doing a wonderful service--I'm guessing that many of the people who are contributing canned goods, etc., might not necessarily contribute a check. This way, the food banks get *something*.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: nofunlatte

                            And they're getting food at a slow time of year. The holidays are the peak donation season for both goods and $ but food bank use goes up in many places over the summer, when children are out of school and no longer get lunch and/or breakfast there.

                          2. Canned tuna fish is up there on our list- good protein that can last awhile in the pantry.

                            1. Is this all over the country? I havent heard anything about this in ny?

                              2 Replies
                              1. re: shoelace

                                I'm in Rhode Island and it's happening here.

                                1. re: dagwood

                                  I'm in Massachusetts and it's happening here today.

                              2. My local food pantry manager says people don't cook, so they have no idea whatsoever what to do with dried beans and that kind of thing. (All the more reason we're interested in possibly doing some frugal cooking education, but that's another topic.)

                                I know it's too late for today's food drive, but I just found a PDF online that might help folks who are wondering what to put in their church food pantry collection or other donation project: http://www.umext.maine.edu/onlinepubs...

                                Something else I've been made aware of: for those who use food stamps, those cover food products but not other essentials like laundry soap, cleaning products, personal care items. Our local food pantry says what they really run short of is MEN'S personal care items, like razors and shaving cream.

                                Oh, and with summer coming, it's worthwhile to note that families where the children receive free or reduced breakfast and lunch at school often find themselves more in need of emergency food assistance during the summer, when those school meals aren't available.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: revsharkie

                                  I have a friend who is severely disabled, a former professional athlete who paid a lot in taxes in his prime, but now must live on a small disability check. His food stamps were recently cut to $64.00 a month, because of the way one agency calculates need against another. If his SS check is increased even slightly, he loses on the other end. And now with the price of gas he can barely afford to get to his medical appointments, let alone drive to a food bank. There are a lot of older single men, as well as women with children, in this situation. So those men's personal care items are really helpful. And so are those luxury items that do so much for a person who lives mainly on oatmeal, peanut butter, beans, and rice. The best help is, of course, a cash donation. But when these drives occur, don't be afraid to put in toiletries, Spam or canned ham, canned stew, shortening, olive oil, and the like. Also, people should be aware that there are a lot of church-based agencies that let you buy items for your own use from populations economically at risk, like chocolate from Ghana and marmalade and chutney from southern Africa, as well as decorative items. Finally, when you can buy locally and support the people in your own area who are trying to make ends meet while bringing you healthful and fresh food.

                                2. A Stark Reality, probably very removed from those of us who have the resources for what it takes to connect to the web and the leisure time to do it.

                                  Pretend that you are shopping for a family that has no electric or gas service. They have weathered the winter because local state ordinances prevent the electric and gas companies from shutting them off during the potentially deadly winter. Now that the seasonal safety net is gone, so are the utilities.

                                  The immediate need is not for "stuff to cook"... they need "stuff to eat". Stuff that can be eaten in the darkness of an apartment, which is pursuing the legal process of eviction within 60 days. The gas in the car to look for a job came hardscrabbled. The next 3 days are critical... there is a need for food to fuel their struggle to survive.

                                  Give canned food that can be eaten cold in the present dire straits. Dried fruit and nuts. Peanut butter, crackers. Dry goods necessary for personal sanitation and presentation. I've been at the food banks when they had plenty of "needs to be cooked" food, but had to ration the stuff requiring no input of water or BTU's.

                                  So, shop as if you were hungry but had no way to cook it. Consider tossing in a few canopeners, as if you did not have one.

                                  Then, most importantly in the long term, make a decision about where you think "we" should be as a society in terms of a safety net, then act accordingly with your emails, phone calls, and letters, to your political representatives. The safety net of food is administered, and funded, at all levels ranging from churches, municipal funding, local corporate entities seeking points for their public image, state laws, and federal, to the USDA and Congress controlling the direction of our farm policies.

                                  Along with the food, toss in a few canopeners and make a few phone calls.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: FoodFuser

                                    thank you for a new perspective!

                                    *Shop as if you were hungry but had no way to cook it. Add can openers.*

                                  2. I retired from my postal carrier job last fall - did not see this in time to post my insider's suggestions! The carrier who delivers to my house has only once delivered the postal food drive notices, in all the years it's been in existence. I don't know if this is laziness or if my town's postmaster does not want his carriers to participate. It is a lot of extra effort for the carriers, and costs the PO in terms of overtime. I worked in a different town, which has a food bank that serves an adjacent town as well. We did an annual November food drive in addition to the national spring drive. The info distributed by the PO is not the best. It is very important that donations be non-perishable and able to survive fairly rough handling, because the carrier has to dump everything into larger containers in the back of the mail truck. There is no time to carefully arrange things. In the town where I worked, we had to unload our trucks at the food pantry after finishing mail delivery. But in some areas, everything gets taken back to the PO and brought inside, to be picked up by or transported to the food bank the following week - which means it gets jostled around even more. People donate glass anyway, which invariably breaks and creates a dangerous, smelly mess. Not to mention the cucumber, the meatball sub and the plastic container of homemade chili! Though the drive does not solicit non-food items, they do not go to waste. Personal care and cleaning supplies will be accepted and distributed by the food banks. I'd say that soups, pasta and other starches, and tomato sauce are the most commonly-donated items, and I imagine that the recipients get pretty tired of these meals. Keep in mind that children will be consuming a lot of this food, which duplicates what they often get on their school lunch trays. Things I didn't see as often were canned and dried fruits, jello, and protein-rich foods including canned beans and stews. Please use plastic bags or put paper bags inside plastic ones, especially in wet weather. And give some thought to how your mail is delivered. If the truck stops at your house, no problem, but if your carrier is walking with a shoulder satchel, s/he' doesn't need to be lugging heavy cans and bulky items.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: greygarious

                                      We never got notice of the drive here either. My mail carrier drives a small 4-door sedan. He is an older man, I'd guess around 70 and doesn't seem to get around very well when I've seen him out walking. I really don't think he could handle it if everyone on the route left items at the mailbox. Not only physically but he couldn't transport a lot in his car.

                                      I donate to local charities. My favorite is a thrift shop owned by local churches. They will give people clothing to wear for job interviews, money to buy food, and help pay for other needs. I also donate food through the local schools to a food bank in the county.

                                    2. This is too late for the US Postal Service food drive, so I'll answer your question in general terms.

                                      First, as others have already mentioned, donate $$$cash$$$. It always fits.
                                      Second, ask the food bank about the population they serve. What do THEY need? Food banks have differing target audiences; the place where you are making your donation will know their specific clientele.

                                      Volunteering at a downtown Phoenix safety net operation, we had some very specific needs and those needs were very different, one from another, yet we served them both. Some clients needed food that could be cooked for families to help tide them over during the month. Other clients were more hand-to-mouth, lacking cooking facilities.

                                      It is impossible to know what food products are a one-size-fits-all. Ask.
                                      We even appreciated pet food which we delivered to housebound seniors who shared their scarce food with their only companions. Ask.
                                      If there is a specific ethnic population in your area, there would be those considerations as well. Dry milk is often wasted for a generally lactose-intolerant group. Ask.
                                      Who is the target group to be served? Do they have cooking facilities? Ask.
                                      Does the food bank want fresh produce? or do they want shelf-stable products? Ask.

                                      If there is not already one in place, consider starting a cooking education program at your local food bank. I was absolutely stunned to learn how much ignorance there is about nutrition, preparation, storage etc in our served population. When I suggested that the same money used to purchase a Big Gulp could be used to buy rice & beans for a whole meal I was met with surprise at this novel concept. After a little while, we began soliciting cooking equipment for our participants and gave it to them after successful completion of the six week workshop we offered.

                                      The problem does not end after the Saturday USPS - or Holiday - food drive. It continues 365 and is especially difficult during the summer for children used to free meals at school.

                                      1. I volunteer at a food pantry. Needs vary greatly but things we always need: anything for children, from babies (even formula though breastfeeding is encouraged) up to school age children, especially small things for lunches eg granola bars, individual packs of fruit/applesauce. Not food related but any cleaning supplies, hygiene related, diapers, personal items. People also asked for baking supplies, not mixes which we usually have plenty of but flour, sugar, powdered milk, maple syrup, etc. People don't tend to donate things like that and they're in demand. Also, depending on the make up of your area, specific cultural foods are always requested.

                                        1. When I was a news reporter, I remember interviewing food bank operators about the best way to donate. They really liked canned veggies and bean, pasta, tuna and rice. They really appreciated foods that kids can come home from school and prepare on their own, so peanut butter and canned fruit were popular. And as previously stated, it's best to donate foods that don't require any additional ingredients.

                                          Specialty or "luxury" items, like olives, etc., were not generally appreciated. I know people think they're doing something nice, but it really irritated a lot of the people I talked to. How many cans of beans could be bought for the price of a jar of olives? This is about keeping people fed.

                                          Most food bank operators told me that the food drives around the holidays were what really stocked their shelves. A lot of donors assume the holiday food drives were designed to provide Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner to people, so they gave stuff like pumpkin pie filling which the food bank operators considered pretty much useless. But in reality for a lot of these organizations the holidays are the only time of year they can get people to give anything. Once Dec. 26th hits, most people don't want to hear about it anymore.

                                          That's why the local supermarkets sold bags of food for donation in paper bags that were stapled shut. For some reason a lot of people had no problem supplying poor people with Christmas dinner, but if they knew the bags were full of beans and rice and peanut butter to get a family through a normal week they wouldn't want to donate.

                                          1. We have a food pantry. Our church pays for the food we give out. We do get some items from a food bank. But demand for food is getting greater. I just took over the ordering of food. I'm looking for other possible resources for food. If you have any ideas it would be greatly appreciated.
                                            Mac and cheese.
                                            Can veggies
                                            Jelly jams
                                            Things like corn beef hash. Can meals beef stew ,
                                            Corn beef hash
                                            Food goes out fast so no problem spoiling
                                            Throw in greets for children cakes frosting

                                            1 Reply
                                            1. My local cupboard asks for unexpired, nonperishable food items & personal care items. Food items would include peanut butter, jelly, tuna, canned soups, canned vegs & canned tomatoes & pasta sauces. Personal care items include diapers, toilet paper, tampons & pads, toothpaste, toothbrushes, deodorant, shampoo, lotions, etc. But I do suggest checking your local pantry's website or FB page to see what they request -- it varies by region.

                                              1. Our local FP sends backpack meals home with kids for the weekend and they include things like individual cereal boxes, granola bars, ramen noodles, canned spaghetti-os with meatballs, canned or individually portioned fruit, cheese or peanut butter crackers. These are always good donations as well as the ones you mentioned. The weekend meals are distributed through the schools and we pack up 200-300 meals each week for kids who might otherwise not get anything remotely nutritious during the weekend.

                                                1. Some of the clients/users of our local food pantry have limited, or no, access to kitchen facilities. Individually packaged fruits and snacks re always welcome (i.e., fruit cups, applesauce, low sugar granola bars), as well as smaller cans which don't require a can opener. The giant tins of sliced peaches, and 1 qt. jars of pasta sauce... they hang around until someone like me picks them up for the community meal.