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What food items should not be donated to a food pantry?

While a food pantry will (probably) never come out and say it, I'm sure there are things that they do not want as donations.

From the top of my head (aside from the obvious like perishables or damaged products), these are some things I think that probably should *not* be donated:

- alcohol
- products that require special equipment to make (e.g. Senseo coffee packets)
- products with labels in foreign languages (i.e., not English)
- items that have not been in production for at least 10 years (e.g., Cracker Jack cereal or Gremlins cereal)

What other things do you think belong on that list?

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  1. I'm sure I'll get jumped on, but I'd say things that are exceedingly "ethnic" for my area.

    Something tells me that the tin of natto isn't going to be any better received at your local food pantry than it would at your great-mother-in-laws - unless she's Japanese, of course.

    Frankly, I tend not to give away stuff that's gathering dust in my cabinet - if "I" haven't used it - and I am an experimental and "fun" cook - then why would I pass it on to anyone else who might not share my cooking style?

    I buy a case of pinto beans (I'm in TX, where even if you don't like pintos, you can make "something" out of them) to donate.

    1 Reply
    1. re: shanagain

      Hard to say....For example, our food pantries here serve mostly South American/Mexicans, a lot of them single guys, who prefer chickens rather than turkeys on holidays. Who would have known? They don't refuse the turkeys, but they aren't happy and also not sure what to do with them. They love cans of soup, Hormel chili, Chef Boy R D (how the heck is it spelled?) and things like that.

      Just ask your local pantry what goes good and they'll tell you. Really, what works best is money, then they can buy what they need in bulk and everyone gets the same bag, so much easier for them to pack out. You know what's useful, bags for them to pack the stuff in, toilet paper, pampers, items like that go really good too.

    2. in addition to damaged & highly perishable goods, food pantries won't accept packaged items that don't have an expiration date on them since there's no way to tell if they're still safe to eat.

      as far as items that are safe but that they probably would *prefer* you didn't donate, i'd say gourmet/specialty spices and condiments, and junk food or other foods that have little or no nutritional value.

      6 Replies
      1. re: goodhealthgourmet

        goodhealthgourment,

        Do you really think the pantries don't want junk food (i.e. potato chips, candy, soda, etc.)?

        While I agree with you that junk food isn't what people (poor, rich or whatever) should be eating, from speaking with people that work at pantries my understanding is that parents often find the junk food items to be a nice treat for their kids.

        1. re: ipsedixit

          not that they'll turn it away, but i've also discussed it with people who work at these places, and while the *parents* may find it to be a nice treat for the kids, the *providers* would rather supply those in need with more nutritious items that can serve as part of a healthful meal for the entire family as opposed to a junk food snack/treat for the kids. i'm not saying they won't accept it, and the reality is that supplies these days are so low that they appreciate anything you're willing/able to give. they'd just *prefer* the majority of donations to be more nutritious.

          1. re: ipsedixit

            Do you really think the pantries don't want junk food (i.e. potato chips, candy, soda, etc.)?
            ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            Maybe things have changed, but back in the day I used to partner with a guy who had access to Entenmann's Baked Goods and Drakes Cakes that were pulled off the shelves in stores with one week left on the date. We would take the items we had and sell them in Flea Markets. Whenever we did not sell out of the products on hand, we would drop them off at a local Soup Kitchen in Newark, NJ. Unfortunately, we could not guarantee what would be available at any given time. For three weekends straight, we dropped off what was left over.......on the fourth weekend, the director told us the people were getting tired of the Yodels and refused to take them.....but added, could we bring more of the Funny Bones and Ring Dings instead.......we left....never to return.

            1. re: fourunder

              wow... ok I have been dirt dog poor, and would have given my back teeth for a yodel as a child. How disgusting.

              1. re: fourunder

                They have not changed. Our local food bank lovingly accepts all manner of baked goods from our local Franz guy. Thank GOD for the Franz folks and the grocery stores.

                Bad ideas for food banks: Expired food, unlabeled food, opened food.

                Money always works, but often people who give, do not have spare cash, or feel like 5 dollars would seems stingy. Believe me, the food bank will take your fiver. They will also gladly take you fresh fruit and cleaned veggies.

                Make sure to call ahead so you know where to bring your goods and at what time. You do not want to go while needy folks are lining up to shop.

                1. re: Sal Vanilla

                  re: expired food. foodbanks know what stuff is "really" expired, and what isn't. That said, it's still probably better to ask them if it's still edible, eat it yourself, and give them the money you've saved.

          2. Honestly what food pantries really don't want to tell you, is that they would MUCH rather you give $$ than cans. Of course they appreciate the thought behind the donation, but it is much easier (and more efficient) for them to deal with money. I occasionally help out at our church's pantry. Pre-filling the bags before the clients arrive is a frenetic activity. The easiest thing is if we have a couple cases of vegetable X so we can take those over to the staging area along with the case of macaroni and the case of beans. Two of column A, one of column B, one of column C goes into the bag in an assembly line. Getting a can of some random thing just makes everything harder. And the most important thing is that food pantries can spend your $5 to buy far more than what you can via Food Patch or other methods. See this article recently:

            To Feed the Hungry, Keep the Can, Open a Wallet
            http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/nyr...

            40 Replies
            1. re: DGresh

              and I was so distressed to read the comments on the article above, many of them accusing the pantries of wanting $ so they can siphon it off for nefarious activities. Having worked in one, that is a terribly hurtful thing to hear-- I know the selflessness of the folks who run ours.

              1. re: DGresh

                This is bordering on a peeve of mine. I don't know why people are averse to giving MONEY! As you say, it's make the organizing SO much easier and their buying power is so much greater. Give $5 or $10 instead of $20 worth of crap that they have no use for.

                1. re: c oliver

                  Our food banks (Calgary, Canada) can purchase $60 worth of food with a $20 donation. How, I don't know, but they appreciate money as a donation above all else.

                  1. re: John Manzo

                    I'm not sure how yours works but in my area, there is a very large food bank that gets donations, not just from the public but from large corporations. In turn, it sells to the smaller foodbanks at very low prices. I prefer to give directly to my little community action center that donates the food directly to the clients.

                2. re: DGresh

                  I feel... funny admitting this, but here I go anyway. My charitable donations have definitely gone down in the last two years (401k tanking plus Kid1 getting into his school of choice and Kid2 right behind him as a jrl. in hs have led to something close to panic).

                  I can easily grab a case of beans (or even ramen, I guess - just as "cheap" and "common") or a few bags of lentils to donate and still feel as if I'm doing something to help.

                  Honestly, though, donating the same $4 in cash? I wouldn't do it - it would be too embarrassingly small, yk? $10... the same. $20, maybe. But still, how "cheap." But for some reason when it's actual food, I am not at all embarrassed by the dollar amount of my donation.

                  1. re: shanagain

                    Perhaps if you consider that your $4 donation could generate $20 in food, then you'd see it differently. And really donating isn't about the giver but the receiver.

                    1. re: c oliver

                      "Could" is a very operative word here. Most of the country is lacking in big organizations like The New York City Coalition Against Hunger with the kind of resources to use donated funds so efficiently. And a lot of the big organizations have high enough overhead that even though they get food deals, your dollars are no more efficiently used. It all goes back to who is operating in your area, and what they're capable of doing. In my hometown, for example, the only year round food banks were in the public library and in the Catholic parish center. They lacked the kind of resources talked about in that NY Times article, but they also had zero overhead costs.
                      But yes, by all means, in an area where donating money is efficient, donate money. Even a quarter helps.

                      1. re: danieljdwyer

                        Is the NYC one you mention the one where the board members pay all the costs of operating it? I thought that was an amazing idea. Couldn't work everywhere perhaps but could probably work in some places.

                        1. re: c oliver

                          I am not sure if that's the one. It's the one in the NY Times article that's been linked to: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/12/nyr...
                          It's a fantastic idea, and, though I have reservations about large distribution networks, I think more places could use things like this.
                          Until I read the article I wasn't terribly familiar with things like this. Though I've been stuck living in cities for 9 of the last 10 years, I'm far from a city boy at heart, and the existence of such things always surprises me.

                      2. re: c oliver

                        Consider me properly chastised - of course it's not about me or my embarrassment, or shouldn't be. I guess I might be "nice" (referencing other thread) but also, what, prideful? there is a helluva lesson there for me, to be sure.

                        At any rate, this conversation has been eye-opening, and has prompted me to leave a message at my local FB asking what it is that they need the most. (I'm looking forward to hearing back.)

                        1. re: shanagain

                          Well, chastisement was certainly not part of my message. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure those things out. Why on earth would you be embarassed? You should be proud of yourself that you're donating, regardless of the amount. When I go to the library, they have a donation jar (Bucks for Books). I put in my pennies and nickels but not larger coins. I don't feel embarassed in the least.

                          I think it's excellent that you've contacted your FB. Excellent idea for all of us. Every community is different as to their needs.

                          1. re: c oliver

                            Thanks, the embarrassment... I guessing it's because I used to donate more.

                              1. re: c oliver

                                Exactly, c oliver. I just called my local FP to ask if they would take donations during a time when they are serving clients (after work on a Wednesday night), as I work about a half hour away from them and cannot make it during their minimal daytime hours. They said absolutely.

                                I also asked what they needed, and the woman who answered the phone said things that aren't on food stamp lists - so when I went to BJ's Wholesale Club on Tuesday night, I made sure things like deodorant, toothpaste, and soap went into my cart, as well as the pasta and canned goods (tomato sauce, fruit cup, etc.) They were most grateful. (Note - diapers are ALWAYS needed!)

                                I usually do give money annually to national organizations, but I wanted to help out local-to-me, because...well, just because. What I am planning on doing is to make sure I put something in my cart for a regular quarterly donation whenever I go to the warehouse store vs. just remembering to donate around the holidays. That way, it's less of a "bite" on my budget, but I can still help out. Perhaps that would help shanagain as well.

                        2. re: c oliver

                          Another way to look at it, though, is that many people have perfectly good food in their cupboards that for one reason or another they aren't going to use. Donating that is "free" for the giver and certainly better (for the giver, the receiver and the environment) than waiting until it "expires" and then throwing it out. I think that was the original purpose behind canned food drives. But I agree it's a little silly to buy something with the specific purpose of donating it. Another thing to remember is that while most people make their donations around the holidays, people still need food in June (in fact, families with children enrolled in school lunch programs need more when the kids are out of school). Last year I set up a small monthly automatic donation to my local food bank: easy, painless, and it makes me feel good when the receipt pops into my inbox every month.

                          1. re: Ruth Lafler

                            I agree with all your post esp. the end. We've been supporting our local library, which closed for two years!, through an automatic, monthly deduction. It's a modest amount every month but more than we're likely to make in a single gift. And, yes, warm and fuzzies are a good feeling, aren't they?

                            1. re: c oliver

                              Yeah, $15/month doesn't seem like nearly as much as writing a single check for $180.

                            2. re: Ruth Lafler

                              But I agree it's a little silly to buy something with the specific purpose of donating it.
                              ~~~~~~~
                              I'm curious as to why you feel that way, Ruth? I just made several purchases at CVS that resulted in $10 in Extra Bucks. I'll use those Extra Bucks to buy small tubes of toothpaste or something similar. When toothbrushes are on sale (as they were this week) I'll get a couple and hold on to them until I have a large enough donation of other items to donate to my local food pantry. My dentist gives me a toothbrush every time I go there (3x a year), so I really have absolutely *no* need for toothbrushes. But if they're BOGOF at CVS, why not get them for the food pantry donation?

                              If I'm buying pasta, and I *know* I won't go through the 8 boxes of spaghetti that are packaged together at BJ's Wholesale Club, why not buy it anyway and put half of them (or more) in a box that will eventually go to the food pantry? Or when Barilla or other pasta or sauce is on sale 5/$5.00, why not buy it for the food pantry? As long as the purchase is not made so far in advance before the donation that the expiration date is close at hand, buying something when you buy yourself something is an easy way to create that box of donations you intend to give.

                              1. re: LindaWhit

                                As I said, if it's stuff you already bought (or are are already going to buy) that's extra, or if you're getting essentially freebies, that's one thing. But as other people have pointed out, the food bank can get a lot more for your money than you can, so going out and paying cash for something to give to the food bank isn't going to get them as much as if you'd given them the same amount in cash, and they can use it to buy exactly what they need and not what people choose to give them.

                                1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                  Did you see this article in the Chron this morning?

                                  http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article...

                                  Wonderful approach to feeding people and a win-win for all.

                                  1. re: c oliver

                                    A recent study found that 40 percent of the food produced in the US is wasted.

                                    http://www.livescience.com/culture/09...

                                    1. re: c oliver

                                      Nice article. There's a huge demand for "runners" of all types at my community action center. We've talked about trying to set up a distribution where people would volunteer to go into neighborhoods and pick their gardens to bring to the pantry. How many people are desperate to get rid of zucchini when they overproduce? The hard thing is getting people to commit to the time.

                                    2. re: Ruth Lafler

                                      This is a good point. The local food pantry sends out a list of requested foods and I usually buy off the list, at places like the Commissary or Costco where I can get a good deal. But, if I donated the money directly to them, it would be most cost effective--save me time, save volunteers time from having to collect it and put it away--and they could use the money to get more food from the large food banks. It seems like a lazy way for me to donate, just write a check, no man power involved...but I guess since I volunteer there, that's woman power enough. In hindsight, it seems like a "duh, obviously" solution. Thanks.

                                      1. re: chowser

                                        I ran for eggs (45 dozen) at .99/dozen via Aldi's. I'm purchasing three dozen for the price the soup kitchen pays for one dozen (when they aren't using powdered egg.

                                        1. re: HillJ

                                          Yeah, it should be done on a case by case basis but I know our local center goes to the food bank and purchases bulk food (that has been donated to the larger food bank) at pennies per pound, far better than most deals I can get.

                                    3. re: LindaWhit

                                      Linda - if your food bank stops taking toiletries (like the toothbrushes/pastes and little soaps) - the women' s emergency shelter will gladly, happily, over joyingly take them.

                                      Something to consider for opened food or sometimes even cooked food - homeless shelters and places where they cook for for people will take it (depending on the state). Like if you bought one of those Costco flours and a white rice sack and have now decided white flour is out for the new year... I know someone who will take them! Those sorts of things might be bad candidates for a food pantry.

                                      1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                        aka soup kitchens. There's one in every Salvation Army, for starters.

                                2. re: shanagain

                                  Given the increased need for food this year, no one should feel badly for donating actual food instead of money. Shanagain, I commend you for giving, even though you've suffered quite a hit this year (and with college expenses to come, no less). I understand that some food banks can do wonderful things with money, but if they didn't want food to be donated, i'm sure they would say so. Also, sometimes food is the only choice you have wrt generosity and donations. The Post Office d4rives, for example, ask for FOOD donations (and they even supply the bags for it). We have boxes in offices around campus asking for food donations (they supply of list of the needed foods--e.g. canned stews, boxes of cereal, etc.--but do not even have an option for cash donations). We do what we can when we can.

                                  1. re: nofunlatte

                                    Thanks, we're still pretty damned comfortable in the grand scheme of things, and if my worst worry is finding funding for my kids' college - well, that's a pretty good problem to have.

                                    I'm really glad I opened up, though, because it opened my eyes, as well.

                                    1. re: shanagain

                                      Ain't it the truth??? The poorest of us are probably rich in comparison to a lot of the world.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Well, it is my wish that everyone--including those of us participating in this thread--need never have to rely on a food bank. And may your holidays--Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, New Year's, Solstice, my sister's birthday (Dec. 27), WHATEVER--bring you much happiness and joy!

                                        1. re: nofunlatte

                                          From your lips to ___________'s ear.

                                    2. re: nofunlatte

                                      Nofunlatte, nicely said.

                                      You do what you can.

                                    3. re: shanagain

                                      if you're feeling embarrassed, put a bag on your head. (seriously, slip the money under the door). money's still there in the end, ain't it?

                                    4. re: DGresh

                                      Re the article:

                                      Gosh. Maybe they can sniff at cans in the big city, but let me tell you - small town America will gladly take them off their hands.

                                      A little stunning.

                                      1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                        No one is sniffing at cans. But the $.69 (or whatever) you spend on a can you buy and donate will go much further than the contents of the can. If your goal is to do the most good for the food pantry, give money. If your goal is to clean out your cabinets and have a "feel good" moment for yourself, give cans. That's what the article - and DGresh's post - makes clear.

                                        1. re: small h

                                          And with that check throw in a new handheld can opener!

                                          1. re: small h

                                            I was actually commenting about the NYT article.

                                            But those two goals you mentioned are often the same. Often people give in order to feel good or they want to give something in particular - something tangible because it feels better or they know exactly what is being contributed. It is not always just cleaning out the cabinets (not that there is one thing wrong with that). There is something about going out and buying something and giving it that is fulfilling. Others can get that feeling by having money taken from their account each month. There is no shame in wanting to feel good in the act of giving. And - news flash - sometimes that is all a person can afford, but they still want to give.

                                            1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                              What I got from your comment, upthread, was that you were shockedshockedshocked at the ingratitude of these fancy big city folks, turning up their noses at the canned goods. While my point was that there's nothing wrong with a charity specifying what will be most useful to them, even if donating that item - cash, perhaps - is not especially "fulfilling" for you. I'm all for people feeling good in the act of giving, but if you give, say, ham to someone who keeps Kosher, it may make *you* feel good, but it doesn't actually *do* much good.

                                              1. re: Sal Vanilla

                                                It's selfish and self-regarding. This isn't to say it's bad.
                                                But don't delude oneself into thinking it's a good thing for the people one purports to be helping.

                                                How much of your charitable dollars do you want to spend on yourself, anyway?

                                        2. The food bank I volunteer with has 2 things they absolutely will not except - alcohol and baby food in individual/loose jars.

                                          They also prefer food in plastic/metal containers, though they will accept food in glass containers if donated. They will accept and distribute dented cans as long as the dent isn't on or around the seal. They will accept damaged packages as long as the inner packaging is still sealed (i.e. ripped cereal box is OK if the plastic bag is intact).

                                          If they received food that is past expiration, recalled, or damaged beyond being safe, they send it to a local hog farm where it is dumped in a vat and boiled for sterilization. The hogs don't care and the food doesn't go to waste. This isn't ideal, and I wouldn't encourage people to knowingly send food that isn't fit for human consumption to the food bank, but if something slips through your pre-donation inspection it's OK.

                                          Most of all though, they would prefer a monetary donation to a bag of food. They can acquire and distribute $4 worth of food for every $1 donated. I know it is fulfilling to drop off a bag bursting with food, but I would encourage anyone who can to make a donation of the same dollar amount, then spend your time volunteering at the food bank rather than in the grocery store. They always need volunteers to sort through gleaned produce, organize donated goods by type, repackage bulk donations, and help with the every day tasks of running a non-profit community service.

                                          3 Replies
                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              Baby food is OK, it's just individual small jars of baby food aren't OK. I don't know the exact reason, but it is against health codes to distribute the individual jars. I've honestly never asked, but my guess is that they can't guarantee the integrity of the seal on jars. The risk is minimal enough that it's OK for adults, but not a risk worth taking for babies. I'm working there this weekend, and will try to remember to ask.

                                              They can accept multi-packs of baby food jars, formula, and other baby food products.

                                            2. re: mpjmph

                                              Baby food is worth checking out before people decide not to donate, At the food pantry where I volunteer, baby food, individually packed or whatever, is always in big demand. We never accept alcohol or soda (seems arbitrary because Hawaiian Punch is okay), nor anything home made. Junk food is fine and we make an effort to pack a bag of chips or some kind of treat.

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