What Do Food Pantries Need?

What Do Food Pantries Need - picture of volunteer accepting canned goods

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For some reason, we have gotten into the habit of doing all of our charitable giving at the end of the year.  One way we typically give back is to sponsor a family or two for Christmas, but I failed miserably at setting that up this year.  So instead, we decided to replace that aspect of our giving with some food pantry donations and a monetary gift to our local animal shelter.

I’ve given to food pantries before, but this time was different.  Instead of adding extra stuff to my regular shopping trip, I headed to the store for the sole purpose of buying things to donate.  Since this was a special trip, I took the time to call a few local food pantries to see what they might need, or what they don’t need.  Here’s what I found out:

What Do Food Pantries Need?

For starters, the people who helped me were very clear about the fact that they are happy to receive anything.  In other words, don’t let this list deter you from giving something else if you want.  They appreciate it all.  On the other hand, there are certain types of foods that are always in demand, and tend to hold up well.  Here are some of the top foods that made the list (in no particular order):

Canned Goods (Low Sodium and Low Sugar)

Low sodium (or regular) canned vegetables of any kind are appreciated.  People can eat them as-is or throw them in their favorite soups.  Meanwhile, low sugar fruits in cans or plastic single serving containers are preferred.  Applesauce in a plastic or glass container also holds up well.

Peanut Butter

Chunky.  Smooth.  With a touch of honey.  It doesn’t matter- food pantries love getting any kind you can dream up!  Peanut butter has a long shelf life and can be used in many different ways.  And throw some jelly in there too.

Canned Meat

Canned tuna, chicken, or salmon are perfect for sandwiches or in main dishes.  The long shelf life helps too.  A can of tuna, a can of peas, a package of pasta, and some mushroom soup can make an excellent, cheap casserole.

Shelf-stable milk

I’ve never paid that much attention to shelf-stable milk before, but I was told that it is a hot item for families without a refrigerator.  I also found shelf stable soy milk and almond milk too.  Any type of shelf-stable milk is appreciated.

Pasta and Rice

You simply cannot go wrong with any type of pasta or rice.  Not only can they be eaten alone or in a wide range of dishes, but they both last a long time on a shelf or in a pantry.  Even better, they are both filling and nutritious.  If you buy some pasta, make sure to buy some pasta sauce to go with it!

Cereal and Oatmeal

Most cereals are fortified with a wide range of nutrients that kids need. Meanwhile, oatmeal in individual packets is easy for people to make.  Both are nutritious foods that can last a long time on a shelf and get snatched up quickly in a food bank.  Try to buy low sugar cereals or oatmeal if you can.

Soup and Beans

You can’t go wrong with any type of soup or beans.  They last nearly forever in can and can be eaten alone or as part of a bigger meal.  Beef stew and canned chili are also a great idea.  Canned anything, really.

More About What Food Pantries Need

Again, this is not an all-encompassing list.  It’s just a basic list of top items that tend to go quickly.  Give whatever your heart desires!  With that being said, I did learn a few more pieces of interesting information I thought I would share:

  • You get bonus points for pop-tops- Most canned goods must be opened with a can opener, but many have pop-tops that are easily opened without any type of equipment at all.  I had never thought about it before, but canned goods with a pop-top are obviously preferable.  Some people may not have a can opener readily available.
  • Toiletries work too- Many food pantries also provide people with toiletries such as toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, and shampoo.  And feminine hygiene products are always appreciated and in short supply.  If you coupon for soap, shampoo, and mouthwash, you might even be able to get some of those items for free.
  • Food pantries always appreciate money- If you don’t want to shop for food or deal with the hassle, send a check instead.  Food pantries can use that money to purchase more food or pay for additional expenses that allow them to stay open in the first place.

Since we were heading to the food pantry anyway, I took some time to clean out our pantry as well.  And let me tell you – it made a huge difference!  There were so many foods in our pantry that we wont eat – things like a different brand of mac-n-cheese that my kids didn’t like, canned soup that I bought and didn’t like, and chicken broth I accidentally purchased instead of vegetable broth.  I added those items to the rest of our donation and freed up some extra space in the process- a win for everyone involved.

What are your favorite items to donate to food pantries?  Any items I missed?

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  1. I love donating something sweet because these are usually not donated. But I think this is an instant mood booster for the people out there.

  2. A+ for the reminder to give, especially to food pantries! We usually donate money instead of food because some kitchens/shelters are amazing at converting less than $1 into a whole meals for their patrons.

  3. Nice list! Our subdivision used to have an end of the year donation and l always noticed it was usually devoid of donations when we went. One time, we got to talking with them, a woman passed by and she worked for one of those shredding companies.. From then on, they donated a day of shredding services in exchange for pantry donations ! What a difference… Hey, whatever works right? I sort of miss my yearly Goodwill clean out.

  4. Great point about the pop tops. I’d never thought about that before.
    My husband has a terrible habit of always taking hotel toiletries with him when he leaves a hotel. A couple months ago I cleaned out the closet in our bathroom and found dozens of hotel size toiletries. I ended up taking a bag of more than 50 toiletry items to the local domestic violence shelter. That’s a place that also usually needs donations!

    1. I take hotel toiletries because they are usually nicer than the stuff I buy at home. Haha

  5. I have been told that they prefer money to items bought specifically for them. They get discounts from bulk buying that regular people don’t.

    1. But where’s the fun in that? We took the kids along and they got a lesson (maybe?) on giving to others. Unfortunately, all they wanted to give was fruit cocktail…so I had to force them to branch out into other food groups.

      But yes, I’m sure money is always appreciated.

      1. It’s great to show your kids how important it is to give to people down on their luck, and giving something is definitely better than not doing anything at all.

        But for people who might not think about just giving money and aren’t trying to teach their kids using something palpable, money for food banks is both easier and preferred to going shopping specifically for donations. (And yes, it is still great to clear out your pantry or to give something you already have if you weren’t planning on giving anything when you’re asked, because something is better than nothing.)

        1. I wrote a whole paragraph about giving money already!

          “Food pantries always appreciate money- If you don’t want to shop for food or deal with the hassle, send a check instead. Food pantries can use that money to purchase more food or pay for additional expenses that allow them to stay open in the first place.”

  6. Good to know on the self-stable milk and pop-top cans. Totally makes sense, but I wouldn’t have thought about that. And, what a great idea to call first and see what they’re low on. Thanks for sharing this list!

    1. I never thought about pop top cans either. Duh, right? Very simple idea.

  7. I think it’s so important to give to food pantries and not just this time of year but all year. I also think it’s important to give food that you would want to eat and not just cheap stuff you can get. I worked a Thanksgiving donation one time for a food pantry and some of the stuff we were sorting looked like it was barely edible. These are people and families sometimes and I think people donate and don’t think about who has to eat the food.

    1. Ugh, that’s sad. Yeah, definitely donate things that are in good shape! Not something that has been in your pantry for three years because no one would eat it.

  8. Awesome and thorough list, and this is all the stuff they suggest here too when we work with local food shelves. Good for you guys for remembering so generously those less fortunate.

    1. I’m sure there are things I missed- these are just things the local pantries asked for!

  9. Great thoughts and hopefully this encourages folks to do the same. I’ve heard diapers and associated supplies are also big needs (kinda like feminine hygiene products).

    1. Diapers! Another great idea. Probably wipes too? Desitin?

  10. Helpful information. I usually go for the canned goods or rice, just seems to make the most sense, but can see how peanut butter or canned meat would be a good donation too. Easy to prepare or make a quick meal.

    1. Peanut butter is awesome. I wish I could keep out of ours.

  11. Solid list Holly an great reminder that most of the time they’re happy to receive anything. We usually do most of our giving at year end as well and usually give money but really like being able to give something tangible as well. The nice thing is some of these are relatively common things you might have around your house anyway.

    1. Money is the easiest thing to give. Hard to turn that into a teachable lessons for the kids, though.

  12. Toiletries and pop-tops –> things I never thought about before. Thanks for the info. It’s perfect for this time of year.

    1. I never thought about it before either- that’s why I wanted to share.

  13. Awesome article, Holly! This is great information. I never thought about buying the cans with pop-tops before, but that makes a lot of sense. Also, the shelf stable milk is a great idea.

    We have several food drives on base each year that I contribute to, so I had a decent idea of what they like to receive, but you’ve definitely gave me a few more ideas.

  14. My local Little Caesar’s reminded me to clean out my pantry with their canned food drive. They may or may not have been giving out free crazy bread for donations.

    1. Hey, nothing wrong with that. That’s actually really nice of them to offer free breadsticks in exchange for donations!

  15. Canned goods and boxed meals are always the easiest, but I gotta tell ya it does make me a little sad that that’s what the marjory of people in need might be eating because of the nutrition level. I’m glad you mentioned low sugar and low salt. Obviously you can’t donate fresh fruit and veggies, but I think that’s sorely lacking in certain food desserts in urban and rural areas. But that was a great gesture on your part Holly! 🙂

    1. Oh, I totally agree. Unfortunately, fresh or frozen stuff just doesn’t hold up. The two pantries I called are only open to the public one day per week. If someone donated fresh food on Monday, it would be bad by Saturday when someone could get it.

      I don’t think that should deter someone from donating. Just because we can’t do the “perfect” thing by donating a 100% fresh, organic meal doesn’t mean we should not donate anything. But yes, low sugar and low salt. That’s what we eat at home too. My kids don’t need canned peaches in high fructose corn syrup!

  16. Very cool, Holly! I have read that oils (olive, canola, etc.) are sometimes a specific need of food pantries. I love that you donated to an animal shelter. My giving project this season is donating pet food to animal shelters and food pantries.

    1. I bet that oils and spices are in demand too. People need that stuff to make meals with all the staples they get from the good pantry! Good idea.

  17. Tara @ Streets Ahead Living says:

    Regardless of what people say, food pantries appreciate donations so long as they’re a) not expired and b) not opened. The fact that you went on a specific shopping trip to buy food to donate food to a pantry is a really great gesture.

    Coffee is a nice one to give too (if you have unopened cans to donate), especially since coffee is considered a luxury item compared to beans or peanut butter.

    Also, I didn’t realize food pantries accept toiletries too but that makes perfect sense. I have to say that donating feminine hygiene products is a wonderful idea, considering those are a necessity, expensive, and aren’t covered by food stamps.

    1. Yes. I didn’t consider feminine hygiene products either. They are expensive though. It really does make sense.

    2. Yes, they appreciate in-kind donations (also most places don’t want glass jars), but if you have money that you’ve targeted for a food bank and don’t have the stuff already, they’d rather that you give them the money than to go out and shop for stuff. They get discounts from places like Feeding America and they can use the money for things that are in shorter supply since donations and needs don’t often match up. (And they need money for salaries and rent and all sorts of other things that people don’t like to direct donate for.)

      And yes, it is far better to go out shopping than to not give anything at all, but if you’re giving advice on what food pantries want… the #1 thing that they say they want is money.

  18. I absolutely love that you wrote this post! It’s amazing how far $20 can go at a no-frills grocery store, and it makes such an impact on a hungry family.

    1. I agree! My Kroger had a lot of generic brands on sale. That’s what I use at home and it is high quality stuff.

  19. I found out about the pop tops a while back. Sadly, the person at the food bank told me it wasn’t only for convenience but for kids who have to fend for themselves. If the parent isn’t around or lucid, at least kids can open a can of soup. It made me sad beyond words but I guess a bad situation is made much worse if there is no food. Thanks for reminding us to donate to the food bank.

    1. That really is sad, but it makes sense. Just another reason to buy pop-tops if you can.

  20. I love that you called them first to see what they needed. The girls always like to donate what they like to eat so it’s a lot of boxed mac and cheese and peanut butter. 🙂 I add the canned veggies, dry beans and rice. I never thought about the pop-tops but that makes a lot of sense and something I’ll make sure our canned good donations have from now on.

    1. My three-year-old literally started crying because she thought I was buying too much pasta. Sorry?

  21. Another idea some may have is to volunteer at a food bank. I have done this in the past and it is very rewarding to help people in need. I think donating time is just as valuable as donating money/food

  22. We have a giant food bank box in one of our local grocery stores. It makes it so convenient! I like to get things that kids will love, because if kids love it, adults probably will too. Not so much the other way around. 🙂

    1. We have one of those too. Kroger actually bags donation packets for you too. You just buy them (they cost $3, $5, and $10, depending on size) and put them in the giant donation box. Pretty smart of Kroger and almost no effort for their customers since they just have to pay for them and put them in the box.

  23. Great post Holly! We seem to do end of the year giving as well. I really like that most of the local holiday parties I’m attending are also collecting items for food pantries and other charitable organizations.

  24. Good work in not only writing the post, but also doing some donations yourself. I have done some donations before, have never donated to a food pantry before, and I don’t even know any here in Vienna.

  25. I love this post! A great reminder to give back. I usually donate canned goods to food pantries but never thought about the pop up tops. That’s a great tip!

  26. I am a couponer who regularly donates to a local pantry. They are very happy to receive toiletries, since food stamps don’t cover these items. Other items they are in need of are laundry detergent and paper goods like toilet paper.

  27. If I want to donate to a food pantry, I’ll raid my cupboards and donate anything that we won’t eat (usually things we bought on impulse or for a recipe that we never ended up making). They have usually a far better buying power than I do, so I wouldn’t go to the store and buy anything – I’d just donate the money I’d have spent so they can buy way more with it. That might just be here in Canada though.

  28. We usually donate the food that we don’t eat but we bought anyways. I’m happy it can go to good use.

  29. catherine says:

    Given my profession we often donate toothpaste and toothbrushes. I know a lot of people who have needed to use a food bank and a lot of the time it includes the need for personal care items.

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