A Comprehensive Guide to Food Donations for Food Banks

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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.

Non-perishable food items from Aldi that were donated to Knights of Columbus.


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.

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
Non-perishable food items from Aldi that were donated to Knights of Columbus.

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.

Reader tips:

  1. 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.
  2. 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).
  3. 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
  • Cornmeal
Non-perishable food items from Aldi that were donated to Knights of Columbus.

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.

Cooking basics

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.

Non-perishable food items from Aldi that were donated to Knights of Columbus.

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-perishable food items from Aldi that were donated to Knights of Columbus.

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*
  • Deodorant
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
2 Shopping carts full of food donations at Aldi.

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

What is the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act?

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.

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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.

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  1. Hi my name is Gwendolyn I’m a part of a company amen who bought a personal care home to help veterans and others struggling to keep it afloat need help with donations for food in Augusta Georgia call Saxons personal care home

    1. Hi Gwendolyn, thank you for reaching out! It’s wonderful to hear about the meaningful work you’re doing with Saxons Personal Care Home. I appreciate you sharing this information. I hope your message reaches those who can offer support. Best of luck with your efforts in Augusta, Georgia! – Meggan

  2. How does one sign up for food? Food banks are there but can’t help me! I’m a senior stuck in my hotel room. I had a heart attack and stroke in July, since I was relocating from Florida, we didn’t have time to get set up. I haven’t eaten for 5 days and can’t find anyone to help. I’m not looking forward to the holidays because I can’t find anywhere to put myself on a list! Sorry, I guess my hunger has got me best of me!

    1. Hi Brenda, I’m so sorry to hear you are going through such a tough time. I can’t even begin to imagine how tough it is for you. I would reach out to local resources first, such as local food banks in the area your hotel is in. It might still be worth contacting them to explain your situation, and they may also have additional resources to help you. Next, try contacting senior assistance programs in the area you are staying.

      Are you still in the US? Have you tried calling 211? This is from their site: “Your local 211 agency has the most up-to-date information about local assistance that may be available to you. Simply call 211 from a cell phone or landline to speak with a live, highly trained service professional. If you prefer to text, chat online, or search your local 211 online database, find your local 211’s other contact information here.” (https://www.211.org/get-help/food-programs-food-benefits) and the page lists additional resources you can contact.

      Other places to contact may be churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious or community groups near you. Many often have programs to help people in need, including providing food. There are also senior specific programs, like Meals on Wheels and there are local Social Services that may be able to help connect you to a food assistance program.

      There are people and organizations out there that genuinely want to help seniors in your situation, please reach out to them for help. Take care, Brenda. I hope everything gets better for you. – Meggan

  3. I volunteer at a food pantry. Much of the food in our pantry comes from a large food bank that can buy in bulk and deal with truckloads of food arriving from a factory. They use cash donations to obtain as much food as possible at the least cost. I can only speak from my experiences, but the large food bank supplies endless cans of tuna and canned corn. You have provided an excellent list of things for an individual to donate to provide variety. Personal care and cleaning products are rarely available from our big food bank.. At our small pantry, we serve many elderly and disabled folks. Some only cook in a microwave. It is sad to say, but many lack teeth. Our small pantry is delighted to receive soft meats like spam, canned ham or canned chicken. Heat and eat food like stew is wonderful. If you are gathering items to donate, think in terms of how to combine items into a meal. Many of the elderly that we serve are able to boil and drain pasta, add a can of meat and finish the dish with diced tomatoes and Italian spice. Or donate pancake mix (that only requires water) and syrup. It is great to give items to a large food bank. But do a little research and you are likely to find a small food panty near you that would be delighted to receive your donation. These small food pantries are often housed in churches or non-profit organizations. Thanks for thinking of those in need.

  4. I wish I could find a place that delivers food to a person like me whose taking care of my healthe who just had surgery and I am in able to be in the heat long periods of times but I try to do small things.i live in Metairie and it’s hard to find an angel that cares if I have toiletries or food to sur

    1. Hi Katie, thank you so much for your comment and I’m beyond sorry for the struggles you’re facing. Have you contacted your local food bank or Meals on Wheels, which is a nonprofit that assists with food delivery for those who cannot cook? I would reach out to them and explain your situation, also any local churches or community centers. I searched foodbank.org, and it looks like the Second Harvest Food Bank may serve your area. Here’s a link to them: https://no-hunger.org/social-servicesbenefits-helpline-3/. Please take care! – Meggan

  5. Thank you for informing us that food banks always need various canned goods with protein components like meats, fish, soups, and stews. My family owns a farm that sells produce to local markets and restaurants, and we were thinking of helping the local food pantry by donating. I’ll keep this in mind while I look for foundations for food pantries within the community. https://lampkinfoundation.org/community-food-pantry

    1. You’re so welcome, Elina! Thank you also for sharing the link to your local pantry! – Meggan

  6. Hi Meggan,
    I’ve only just discovered your recipe site yesterday. It’s a wonderful site – great recipes, clearly laid out, and beautifully presented. But what I found most remarkable is this link on what to donate to food banks and to the hungry – irrespective of whether they are homeless or just in need. Your site is the only one I’ve come across to be thoughtful enough to include giving! And your suggested giving list is spot on!
    I myself have experienced a time of living in my car, and since that eye-opening time, I have given as much as I can – not just to charitable organizations, but on my own: I actively collect jackets and blankets throughout the year and pass them out during winter. I also keep supplies (food and sundries like bottled water, protein bars and paper towels) in my vehicle at all times to give out when I see a need. And I never give less than $5 to spare changers.
    Who am I to judge their needs?
    Though I have been happily settled for some time now, I have never forgotten that others do not have the joy of having a fully stocked kitchen to cook delicious and nutritious foods in. Thank you so much for mentioning those in need. It is never wrong to be kind. Bless you and have a wonderful holiday season!

    1. Hi Enna! Thank you for sharing your experience 💜 There is such a need, and it’s amazing that you keep toiletries and food to hand out. I hope you have an amazing holiday! Take care! – Meggan

  7. I currently help at a local supplemental food pantry that serves two local rural counties. Unfortunately the grant monies are not sufficient for the needs of the pantry. Do you have any suggestions where we can find food for the pantry that does not have to be purchased.

    Thank you

  8. I am currently trying to gather items for homeless, I am purchasing back packs , I put socks, gloves, hats, firestarting kit
    first aid kit, emergency blanket and tent that helps against hypothermia , bar soap, toothpaste and brush comb.
    some survival items and rocket stove and mess kit and eating utensils.
    I dont know why people are against helping the homeless, someone told me I am enabling them. I dont know what else to do to help them. I know there are people who take them hot meals also. I use to donate food in flats like you, but I didnt always have a place to store them. I think money donated is probably the best. I have also started to go through our clothes to donate . I know the need is there. I recently saw a large metal box for boots and coats and any clothes in general for kids the box was located in a school parking lot. Im glad people like you are doing this good dead and I love the fact that you put this information on your site. GOD BLESS and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
    Tami Zinn

    1. Hi Tami, you are an angel and a saint! I agree with you whole-heartedly and don’t want to dignify people who call you an “enabler” with any sort of defense or response. The fact is that many homeless are in that situation due to mental illness, are veterans of wars, or other severe problems and the system has failed them. Until the system helps them, it falls on those of us who can help to do so. I really appreciate what you do, and I know they do too even if they don’t say it. I REALLY APPRECIATE your extra suggestions about what you donate it so I can put it on my site, either on this post or another one. We need this information and we need to share it. Thank you, God Bless You too and Happy Thanksgiving. -Meggan

  9. What a great post! Thank you for taking the time to do this research. So helpful and a good reminder of the blessisngs most of us take for granted–and that people are not just going hungry at Thanksgiving.

    1. Hi Mary, thank you so much for leaving a comment. I feel like this post came from my soul and I really appreciate that you read it and it resonated with you. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving! -Meggan