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Millions of Americans suffer from food insecurity every day, but you can help. Here are the Best Food Donations to buy (and the ones to avoid) plus a section on specific food donations for the holidays. In addition, you will learn how to locate a food bank near you or even volunteer.
Hunger and food shortages are a reality for millions of Americans. According to Feeding America, there were 34 million hungry people in 2021. These people rely on local food banks to fill in the gaps between what they can afford and any benefits they receive.
Community food drives become really popular at the holidays, and that’s great! But people go hungry all year round. No matter what time of year it is, it’s always a good time to donate to your local food bank. Whether it is through food donations, personal care and household items, your time, or your money, there are many ways to get involved and make a difference.
Throughout this article, I have linked to organizations that fight hunger, but I’d love to include more. Please leave a comment below for any other resources you might have so we can share as many organizations as possible.
Table of Contents
- What to Donate to a Food Bank
- Best Food Donations for Thanksgiving and Christmas
- Avoid These Donations at Food Banks
- Non-Food Donations for Food Banks
- Where to Buy Donations
- Donate to Your Local Food Bank
- Volunteer at a Food Bank
- Cash Donations to Food Banks
- National Council on Aging (NCOA)
- Frequently Asked Questions
What to Donate to a Food Bank
Food banks (also known as food pantries or soup kitchens) are nonprofit organizations that accept any non-perishable, shelf-stable food items (things that you can keep in your cupboard or pantry for a long period of time).
While any qualifying donation of food is welcome and helpful, offering tasty, nutritious meals and wholesome food will only further the good impact you have.
When I make my food donations, I ask myself this question: “Would I want to eat this if I got it? Would I be happy about this meal?” That keeps me from donating the random items collecting dust in my pantry and seek out non-perishables that have the potential to spark joy in a difficult situation.
IMPORTANT: Please always consider donating can openers.
Protein and Dairy
Food banks always need a variety of canned meats and fish, nuts and nut butters, and beans or lentils. Fresh milk is one of the most-requested items at food banks, but it is hard to stock and distribute. However, powdered milk or cartons of UHT (ultra high-temperature milk) are suitable alternatives that food banks welcome.
Canned soups and stews, especially those with a protein component, can make a hearty meal. Personally, I love to eat the shelf-stable tuna lunch kits that come with crackers, therefore this is an item I always donate with love.
- Canned tuna and salmon
- Canned ham and SPAM
- Canned chicken and turkey
- Beans and lentils (canned or dried)
- Canned soups, stew, and chili
- Beef jerky
- Peanut butter
- Nuts and seeds (almonds, walnuts, pecans, sunflower seeds, pepitas)
- Powdered milk or UHT milk
- Protein bars
- Velveeta and other shelf-stable cheeses
- Baby formula, infant cereal, and pouches of baby food
Fruits, Vegetables, and Grains
These items can really fill in the gaps in meals and days for those who are hungry. Because they are cheap to buy, they make a great donation item.
When looking at mashed potatoes, I look for varieties that can be reconstituted with just water (not the ones that require butter and milk; many food bank users might not have those).
And whenever I buy pasta, I buy an equal amount of pasta sauce, and I look for pasta sauces that contain meat. I personally avoid boxed meals such as Hamburger Helper because I don’t know if recipients will have ground beef on hand to make the meal.
- Look for small bags and boxes of food (such as pasta and rice) rather than oversized ones because food banks cannot divide them into smaller portions.
- If you have the bandwidth, include instructions for how to prepare the food you are donating (many poor people may not know how to cook donated foods).
- Donate can openers.
- Canned and dried fruits
- Applesauce and juice boxes
- Canned vegetables (including canned tomatoes)
- Rice (especially instant brown rice) and quinoa
- Pasta (especially whole grain)
- Pasta sauce (especially with meat)
- Canned meals (ravioli)
- Baked beans
- Dry soup (Ramen noodles)
- Instant mashed potatoes (made with water)
- Macaroni and cheese
- Oatmeal and cereals (whole grain, low sugar)
- Granola bars and trail mix
- Popcorn and crackers
- Baking mixes, especially cornbread (made with water)
- Pancake mixes (made with water) and syrup
Look for easy open-containers
When buying canned foods, look for cans with pop-tops that do not require can openers or any other special tools.
Low or no-salt options
Consider low-sodium or no-salt products for senior citizens or those with dietary restrictions.
Some common ingredients (that we probably take for granted) can really help out at a food bank. Consider cooking oil (canola or olive oil), cooking spray, spices, flour, and sugar.
Best Food Donations for Thanksgiving and Christmas
While many of us will gather around the table for cozy family meals at Thanksgiving and Christmas, those who are hungry have a different experience.
Many food banks partner with farmers, grocery store chains, and restaurants to deliver perishables food such as turkeys, dairy, and fresh fruits and vegetables at the holidays and all year round. These organizations are true heroes that bring a lot of joy and comfort.
If you have one of these occasions in mind, here are some holiday-specific food donations to add to your cart next time you’re at the grocery store.
- Instant mashed potatoes (made with water)
- Boxed stuffing
- Gravy or gravy mix
- Canned vegetables (especially corn and beans)
- Cream of soups (chicken, mushroom, celery, broccoli)
- Dry macaroni and Velveeta cheese
- Biscuit, cornbread, or baking mixes (made with water)
- Canned cranberry sauce
- Canned pumpkin
Want to help in person on Thanksgiving Day? Try Feeding America’s Volunteer Tool.
Avoid These Donations at Food Banks
Not all donations are equal, and some are flat-out unsuitable. Here are some items to avoid.
- Expired items: Check the dates on your donations and only donate items that have not passed their “best by” or “expiration” dates.
- Perishable items: Items that need to be refrigerated or will spoil quickly. Most food banks simply do not have the storage space (refrigerator and/or freezer) to handle these items. Examples include fresh meat and poultry, dairy products, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Leftovers: This is a food safety issue because food banks cannot verify ingredients or preparation, and the food isn’t individually sealed. Keep leftovers at home with your family rather than trying to donate them to a food bank.
- Baked goods: Just like leftovers, this becomes a food safety issue that food banks simply aren’t equipped to handle. They have no way to confirm what ingredients were used or when (and how) the food was made, so they won’t accept these donations.
- Damaged or fragile packaging: Cans with dents or bloating, bags with tears, or packages that are already open should be avoided. Do not donate food in glass containers either (these can shatter if dropped).
- Junk food: There is nothing morally wrong with junk food, but nutritious food will serve your community best.
Non-Food Donations for Food Banks
Some food banks also accept and distribute hygiene products and household items. Many families cannot afford these items either, and they are not covered by SNAP benefits the way food is. There are many well-documented negative outcomes for children and adults alike when they cannot wear clean clothes or maintain personal hygiene (for example, school bullying or poor job interviews).
The good news about personal care and household items is they don’t have an expiration date. Just confirm with your local food bank that they will accept these items. Even donating unused travel-size toiletries from hotels can help.
- Diapers and wipes
- Laundry detergent
- Period products
- Toilet paper
- Shampoo and conditioner
- Body wash and shower gel*
- Shaving cream and razors
- Toothbrushes, toothpaste, and floss
- Hand lotion
*Families with small children generally can’t use bar soap, so food banks often have enough bar soap to build a small castle. Please consider body wash and shower gel instead.
Where to Buy Donations
There is no wrong place to source your donations, and even your own pantry is a good start (just check your expiration dates). Similarly, any grocery store or food warehouse will do.
For this project, I wanted to buy a lot, and I thought that Aldi was my best bet. (Aldi did not sponsor this post and they don’t know about it. I spent my own money to buy the donations you see pictured here, and they cost about $600.)
Here are the reasons I like to shop at Aldi for donations:
- All of the food goes on the shelf in boxes. Aldi saves money by putting items on the shelf still in their original shipping boxes. Nobody is paid to unload individual food items and line them up on shelves as you see at other grocery stores. This was the biggest reason I wanted to shop at Aldi. I could easily grab box after box of canned goods, packages, and bags, and it was easy to stack, sorted, and organized.
- Aldi has really low prices. There are probably 20 grocery stores between Aldi and me, but I knew my dollars would go much further there, so I drove across town. Besides, they have high-quality private label products and a selection of mass-market items, too.
- The shopping carts are large. If you’ve never shopped at Aldi, you might not know the quirk about the quarter. Aldi also saves money by making customers fetch and return their own carts (you pay a quarter to get your cart, and you get the quarter back when you return it). All that aside, the shopping carts are huge and I was able to buy a lot. It still took 2 shopping carts, though.
Donate to Your Local Food Bank
Now that you have the knowledge, find a local food bank in your area and go donate!
Start with Google
A simple Google search for “food bank near me” might give you the answer you need. For example, I grew up with the Hunger Task Force in Wisconsin.
Feeding America Locator Tool
To find a food bank near you, try Feeding America’s easy locator tool. Just click the button below.
Volunteer at a Food Bank
If you are feeling ready to do more, you can contact your local food bank to learn about in-person volunteer opportunities. They always need extra hands to help receive, sort, and distribute donations.
Or, try Feeding America’s Volunteer Tool to find an opportunity near you.
Cash Donations to Food Banks
Food banks can stretch a dollar further than you can because they often have networks or can leverage purchasing power. Therefore, consider a one-time or ongoing financial donation to a food bank near you.
(Do you know of another organization accepting cash donations to end hunger? Please leave a comment below.)
National Council on Aging (NCOA)
For older adults living alone, food insecurity may be just one of many critical concerns.
The NCOA created Resources and Support for Older Adults Living Alone, a guide which includes practical tips and resource recommendations from geriatric health experts and advocates, such as:
- PACE programs, which use Medicare and Medicaid to help older adults attain nursing home-level care
- HealthFinder, a resource with easy-to-understand articles, videos, and interactive tools to help older adults make informed decisions about their health
- NCOA’s BenefitsCheckUp tool which helps older adults identify their potential eligibility for benefits and programs
Frequently Asked Questions
This Federal Act provides protection from civil and criminal liability for
anyone in the United States involved in the donation and distribution of food and grocery products to needy individuals when certain criteria are met. These guidelines protect donors, distributors, wholesalers, and growers. You can read more about the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in this PDF from the USDA.
Meggan Hill is a classically-trained chef and professional writer. Her meticulously-tested recipes and detailed tutorials bring confidence and success to home cooks everywhere. Meggan has been featured on NPR, HuffPost, FoxNews, LA Times, and more.