Three Overlooked Donation Options for Food Pantries

Food PantryWhen it comes to making a donation to a food pantry or a food bank, I used to think it was a no brainer. My mind mapped out a Venn diagram of sorts that considered what my dietary staples included, what I knew to be non-perishable items, and then I tried to scoop up whatever overlapped. Rice, peanut butter, canned vegetables, canned fruit, noodles, pasta sauces, soups, sugar, flour, salt, in addition to other baby and personal care items*.

Still, I realize that a big part of what food banks and food pantries do besides keep people fed is to also provide dignity. With that in mind, I’ve tried to expand my donations. If you’re looking to push your giving beyond the basics, here are a few of my favorite items to donate. 

Pet Food

I have been a long-time supporter of various local food pantries. In fact, every time I grocery shop for my little family, I make sure to add an item or two that I donate at month’s end. Still, it took a lesson from Boy Scouts to drive this donation idea home. I had never seen it on a most requested list, but pet food really is a no-brainer when you think about it. American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) estimates that nearly 80 million dogs and 100 million cats are owned in the United States. That means that nearly half of the homeowners in the US have pets.

When the local scouts left a flyer in our mailbox last spring saying they were collecting only pet food for the local food pantry, I was floored. After a moment or two of thought, it occurred to me – if you’re struggling to feed your family, of course you’re also struggling to feed your pets. Ever since that flyer appeared, I now add pet food to the rotation of items I pick up. An added bonus is the fact that I’m nearly certain Mr. P’s heart stops a little each time he helps me unload groceries and he discovers dog treats or cat food. I’m not sure if he’s more afraid that my cooking has devolved to an all-time low or if I’ve adopted a stray without his knowledge.

Little Luxuries

Our last school food pantry collection yielded thousands of items of the classic staples – pasta noodles, rice, canned vegetables, beans. I talked to my students a little bit about the types of food we like to eat, and we quickly came to the conclusion that while the cliche “variety is the spice of life” is true, that variety may very well come from spices. Add a pinch of cumin to diced tomatoes for a more Tex-Mex flair, while a dash of oregano and garlic salt will have your tastebuds thinking Mediterranean. We decided that while spices aren’t normally thought of as something that is desperately needed, they would be very much appreciated as people try to get clever with their meal planning. With stores from Dollar Tree to Aldi carrying spices very inexpensively, these items make wonderful additions to other donated goods.

Special Programs

Many food pantries run different programs or initiatives throughout the year. Of all the special programs I’ve seen, I think my favorite is one called Birthday Bags. At our local pantry, a birthday gift bag is filled with cake mix, a can of frosting, and candles to make sure families are able to celebrate their children’s birthdays. While I have a heard a handful of people remark that these are non-essentials, the reminder that you are special and worth celebrating offers children and families happiness and dignity. There’s nothing frivolous about that. Prior to learning about this program, I never would have thought to donate items like brownie, cake, or cookie mixes. Now, it’s one of my favorite offerings, because I imagine the spark of excitement and time of celebration for that family.

*I also try to donate items that require no need to heat or prepare. One local grocer sells tuna-and-cracker kits and hummus-and-cracker kits that have a long shelf.

PS – To read about how I combine couponing with donations, check out this post.

So Tell Me…Have you heard of any other items or initiatives that your food pantries or food banks collect?



Three Overlooked Donation Options for Food Pantries

16 thoughts on “Three Overlooked Donation Options for Food Pantries

  1. One thing that bothers me with the drive to “make sure food stamps are used responsibly and not for junk” is the last point you mentioned. What if there is a family birthday or other special milestone? What if the family chooses to have a few days of beans and oatmeal so that they can have a little steak or cake on a special day? Is that really irresponsible? Shouldn’t the family have that option?
    And great point about the spices! They add a lot more flavor and variety.

  2. Shannon says:

    You have some of my favorite posts.

    I’ve thought about donating spices before, but never pet food or birthday type treats. I’ll add those to my next shopping list for donations.

    1. That’s so kind of you to say, Shannon. You made my day! You definitely will want to check on the pet food – I’m not sure it’s universally accepted. But I think it totally should be. Those Boy Scouts definitely gave me something to think about!

  3. When I used the food bank, there was always a lot of excitement when there was a small dessert or other non-pasta item. Not that we didn’t appreciate the food provided, but still…

    Don’t forget that women’s and homeless shelters can always use basic things like deodorant, toothbrushes, etc. Most of which, if you’re into couponing, you can get almost free or actually free. Women’s shelters are usually desperate for diapers, too. And around school time, school supplies and backpacks are a huge help for most food banks.

    1. That’s really helpful to hear that it is appreciated. That always motivates me to give more! I love couponing for a good cause. My husband teased me relentlessly when I came home with a trunk full of toilet paper – but it was too good of a deal to pass up. And our food pantry sent out a special request for TP and paper towels. Great point about the school supplies, too!

  4. Depending on the community that it serves, tampons, pads or diapers may be appreciated. Check with your community bank on the preferred feminine hygiene products as these are shockingly culturally sensitive.

    Some food banks don’t do personal care products though, so check first.

    1. That’s an awesome reminder, Hannah! Our food pantry definitely accepts them, and I try to donate at least every other month. I’ve never seen them voice a preference for type of product, but that’s something I never thought of. I’ll be more mindful when I shop now.

  5. Women’s and family shelters really need pads and tampons, and our local shelter really appreciates diapers, too. People don’t think of these disposables, frequently, so we’re being mindful of those things that are missed.

    Our local homeless shelter helps families with a place to stay and also gets them set up once they’re on their feet, so they can be self sufficient again and one thing they appreciate is housewares like small household appliances and new sheets for beds. We were thrilled to get a great deal on some new cookware that we could donate, new in box, recently.

    1. Awesome reminder! I donate those every fall during a neighborhood drive and my husband always teases me that I’m embarrassing the kiddos who volunteer to collect the boxes. My response? Too bad. Feminine hygine products are crazy expensive!

  6. I love that you’ve given this some thought and are concerned about the dignity of people who will receive your donations. My wife volunteers at the local food bank and they are always grateful for the donations, including the ones you’ve mentioned. If you really want your donation to go far, a cash donation is always a good option because the food bank can acquire the food at much lower prices than it sells for at the supermarket. Another overlooked thing to donate that doesn’t cost a thing is your plastic shopping bags (the ones that are still in good shape) which the food bank uses to distribute food to clients. These donations may not feel as personal, but the most important part is not what you donate, but just that you help in some way.

    1. The plastic bags suggestion is brilliant. And you’re spot on with the cash giving. I do that separately (usually at the end of every month) because I try to buy these items with my grocery money. It forces me to get creative with coupons and is a gentle reminder of how good I have it every time I shop. All of your wonderful comments motivated me to write a post or two on my giving strategies. Thanks, Gary!

  7. I love giving bags of cookies and candies, especially holiday ones. I know that so many people give the necessities and that if I was a kid and there were candy canes in the bags coming from the food pantry, my day would be SO much happier. Love this post Penny! Great ideas. I never would have thought of the pet food especially!

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