Donation box full of food.

How to Support Local Food Banks and Food Pantries

Updated May 1, 2024 . AmFam Team

While millions of Americans face food insecurity, you have the power to make a difference. Supporting your local food bank or food pantry can be a rewarding experience that helps those in your community.

Some excellent ways to get involved include donating, volunteering and fundraising. Read on to learn more.

Volunteers sorting food at a food bank.

What is a food bank?

A food bank is a nonprofit operation that provides food and supplies to local food programs, such as food pantries, soup kitchens and homeless shelters.

They help distribute food directly to those who don't have enough to eat. Some may be set up like a traditional grocery store, where individuals and families select their own items. Other pantries provide pre-packed boxes of food and supplies instead or offer a combination of both methods to distribute groceries to their local communities.

Food bank serving food.

Food Banks Feed Millions

Scott Baker has been with Feeding Missouri for 11 years and serves as its director.

Feeding Missouri (Opens in a new tab) works with a statewide network that includes the state’s six food banks that serve over 1,500 food pantries, community feeding organizations and emergency food assistance programs. Feeding Missouri helps these groups distribute over 120 million pounds of food each year. The organization also works to raise awareness, funding and resources for combatting food insecurity (Opens in a new tab).

Jeff Ambroz has been with Second Harvest Heartland for seven years and is its grants and research manager.

Second Harvest Heartland (Opens in a new tab) is a food bank that serves 59 counties in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. Its distribution center supplies over 1,000 program sites, such as food pantries, meal programs and after-school programs. In a single year, they distribute enough food for 97 million meals. As part of their mission to end hunger (Opens in a new tab), Second Harvest Heartland also works to help sustain the environment.

Both Feeding Missouri and Second Harvest Heartland are part of Feeding America (Opens in a new tab), a national network of food banks and nonprofit organizations all working together to end hunger in America. The Feeding America network provides over 4.3 billion meals annually, reaching over 40 million people in need.

Volunteers unloading donation boxes.

How can you support local food banks and food pantries?

Given Scott's and Jeff's expertise, we asked them for their tips and insights on how you can best support local food banks and food pantries.

While each food bank and food pantry might operate a little differently, there are three things that Scott said all food banks need: food, funds and time.

Therefore, three ways you can support your local food programs include:

  • Donate food
  • Donate money
  • Volunteer your time

Person pulling money from their wallet.

What to Donate to Food Banks and Food Pantries

Is it better to donate food or money to a food bank? If you can afford to do so, the food banks we spoke with provided a unanimous answer: Money is better. Food banks have incredible buying power because they are making bulk purchases and can stretch a single dollar into multiple meals.

“If you look at the food bank model and what a food bank can do with a dollar, the amount of food it can acquire for a dollar is way better than what you and I can do at a grocery store,” explained Scott. “In most cases, a food bank can provide up to 4-5 meals with a single dollar."

However, if you’d prefer to donate food or supplies, Scott and Jeff both strongly recommended checking in with your local food bank before heading out to the grocery store. Food banks’ needs vary widely based on the season, the needs of the community they’re serving and the types of donations they’ve recently received. For example, during harvest season, they might get a sudden influx of fresh produce but have very little fresh fruit and vegetables during colder winter months.

Cans and dried food.

In general, the following are almost always in high demand and should be at the top of your food bank items list:

  • Shelf-stable proteins, especially peanut butter, nut butter and canned meats (particularly lean proteins like chicken and tuna)
  • Low-sodium canned foods, such as low/no-salt soups and vegetables
  • Diapers (for both babies and adults)
  • Cleaning supplies and sanitation items (such as hand soap, hand sanitizer and cleaning wipes)
  • Paper products (such as paper towels and toilet paper)
  • Personal hygiene items (such as shampoo, body wash and feminine hygiene items)

When contemplating what to donate to a food bank, Jeff recommends, “Ask yourself: What’s the most nutrition you can get for each dollar you spend? Don’t focus on volume. Think about nutrition and healthfulness first when you’re shopping for donations."

What about fresh food from your backyard garden or hobby farm? Check in with your local food bank or food pantry first. Some food banks and pantries are able to accept fresh, home-grown produce. However, others may lack the storage space or staff needed to process these donations before they spoil.

Person checking food in her fridge.

What Not to Donate to Food Banks and Food Pantries

While the intention is always appreciated, there are many items that food banks can’t accept or can’t use. These include:

  • Any expired foods or foods that are close to expiring — always check the expiration date first before donating.
  • Any chemicals stronger than normal household cleansers — food banks have strict storage rules to prevent food contamination.

Volunteers sorting food at a food bank.

Donate Your Time: Volunteer at a Food Bank

In addition to food and financial donations, you have a precious resource that all food banks need — your time! Food banks and pantries rely heavily on volunteers for their day-to-day operations.

Best of all, there are lots of different ways you can lend a helping hand depending on your skill set, physical abilities and schedule availability. Although the pandemic has impacted many food banks, most have found ways to allow volunteers to work safely, with proper health and social distancing precautions.

"We have made some big shifts in regards to our volunteer program here at Second Harvest,” shared Jeff. “We have volunteers ensure that they are healthy before they arrive. They use hand sanitizer and we make sure they have masks on. We keep everybody six feet apart. We’re really thinking about how we can limit exposure to COVID-19 amongst our volunteer group and our staff. We have very strict protocols.”

Volunteers having a meeting. 

A common need among food banks is for volunteers to process incoming donations and pack distribution boxes. This involves light lifting and a little bit of walking but generally is not physically intensive work. Typical activities might be checking incoming produce, sorting donations, separating bulk foods into individual or family servings, packing an assortment of foods and supplies in individual- and family-sized boxes and distributing those boxes at contactless pick-up sites.

“Our volunteers are really important to us because with the massive amount of food that we get in, we need hundreds of people every week to help us sort that food, pack it up and separate it out by the places it’s going to go,” commented Jeff.

Another need is volunteers to help with administrative tasks. At Second Harvest Minnesota, phone bank volunteers call donors to thank them for their support. Another group assists callers with questions about SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (what used to be called food stamps) — to assist them with the application and make sure they’re getting the help they need.

Scheduling can be very flexible, too, with opportunities to volunteer during the day, in the evening, over the weekend — really, any time you’re available, there’s likely a volunteering opportunity open at a food bank or other hunger relief organization.

Some food banks are even set up to allow families to volunteer as a group or have designated “family days” where they allow younger kids to participate — which can be a great way to combat cabin fever, get the whole family out of the house and do good in your local community all at the same time.

If you have specialized skills, such as accounting, graphic or web design, IT management or logistics, see if your local food bank or food pantry has skill-based volunteering opportunities. Plus, with COVID-19 affecting individuals’ and families’ ability to physically visit food pantries to pick up supplies, there’s an increased need for volunteers with driver’s licenses and operating vehicles who can perform food deliveries around the community.

Volunteer working at her desk.

Donate Your Time to a Food Bank: Educate & Advocate

Did you know you can provide essential support to your local food banks and food pantries without ever leaving your house?

It starts with educating yourself on the issue and then using your knowledge to raise awareness within your community. Engage local companies and even coordinate outreach to lawmakers and other leaders to encourage them to support policies and funding for food banks and other meal programs.

"Awareness is a great big need, especially in America,” commented Scott. “Because the idea of hunger existing in a wealthy country like the United States just doesn’t make sense to a lot of people, and on the surface, it may not seem to exist, but it is a reality."

According to Feeding America (Opens in a new tab), more than 35 million people in the U.S. struggled with hunger in 2019 — and that number may increase to 50 million in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19.

“Regardless of where you live, hunger is a problem,” Scott stated. “It’s prevalent in all parts of the country, urban and rural. One of the big challenges of hunger is that it’s a well-hidden problem. It’s not obvious a lot of times. People with food insecurity often go out of their way to conceal the problem."

In fact, in parts of the state served by Feeding Missouri, there are areas with food insecurity rates of 30% or more — that means roughly a third of the population is dealing with food insecurity. Even some farmers struggle with food insecurity.

“A lot of people think, when you say hunger, they think of the old late-night commercials about starving children in Africa. Hunger is not starvation,” explained Scott. “Hunger is a single mother with two kids deciding whether to buy groceries or buy medicine. Deciding between rent or utilities or food. You could have a neighbor dealing with food insecurity, and you’re probably not going to know about it.”

“Food insecurity is not knowing when you’re going eat, or the next time you’re going to be able to buy food, or how you’re going to stretch these few little ingredients that you have into a meal for the whole family. We always remind people that there are people in their local communities that are struggling with this issue,” echoed Jeff.

He continued, “They could be seniors living in senior high rises, they could be kids living at home with parents who are struggling. Often times it’s mothers skipping meals so that their kid can eat or a worker who doesn’t have a lunch to take to work with them or a kid who doesn’t get breakfast before they go to school. The statistics point to the fact that there are food insecure people in every community.”

Once you’ve educated yourself on the issue, you can use your knowledge to make a real difference. Something as simple as writing a letter or making a phone call to your local leaders can be a powerful way to help fight food insecurity within your community.

“Advocate for effective public policy. Call your local elected officials and tell them that hunger is an issue that you support and that you want them to advocate for effective public policy around hunger,” said Jeff.

Person looking at a donation website on her laptop.

Use Social Media to Fight Hunger

You can also support food banks at the click of a button. “Follow your local food bank on social media. Like their posts, comment and share them,” suggestions Jeff. “Hunger is often misunderstood, so the more we share information about hunger and the more we engage other people, the better. And that’s something we can all do.”

One more suggestion: Research the available resources and share that information with your local network. Because of the hidden nature of hunger, you might not know if a friend or neighbor is struggling with food insecurity. And, due to the pandemic, a lot of people are dealing with food insecurity for the first time and don’t know where to go for help. Sharing resources in a supportive, non-judgmental way can make a world of difference.

Person delivering food to another person.

How has COVID-19 affected food banks and food pantries?

The pandemic has had a major impact on all of our lives — and that impact has been devastating for families who were already facing food insecurity.

“We’re seeing increased needs due to much higher levels of unemployment,” shared Jeff of Second Harvest Heartland in Minnesota. Closed restaurants, reduced work hours in manufacturing and layoffs have resulted in more families struggling to make ends meet — and food is often one of the only areas where families can decrease spending compared to fixed costs like mortgages, rent or utilities.

Before the pandemic, an estimated 1 in 11 Minnesotans were food insecure. By late September 2020, that number had risen to 1 in 8. According to Jeff, “That’s around 233,000 additional people we will need to serve. We’re seeing 30% increases in the amount of food we are sending out to food pantries.”

Over at Feeding Missouri, Scott has seen demand increase go up by 80% to 100% in some places. To put that in perspective, in normal circumstances, an increase of just 10% would be considered pretty extreme.

“It’s been a double-whammy, triple-whammy, I’ve-honestly-lost-count-of-how-many-whammies, for food banks,” he explained. On top of the increased need, “it’s impacted our volunteer effort, and all levels of the emergency food relief network really rely on volunteers... So, at a time when we needed more help, we had less help. At the same time, the pandemic has really changed the way that we are distributing emergency food assistance. We’re doing a lot more of contactless, drive-through kind of distribution, which actually requires even more helpers.”

A significant number of food bank volunteers are often senior citizens, many of whom can no longer volunteer due to health concerns or community ordinances. Many smaller, local food pantries are entirely volunteer-run — and some have even had to shut down due to the pandemic, despite the increased need for their services.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the pandemic has disrupted many supply chains, including several that serve food banks and food pantries.

Scott sees the increased need for food, funds and volunteers lasting long beyond the pandemic. “Even after this thing ends, the economic impact is going to be around for a while. Thinking about the recession several years ago, even as the news headlines started to shift to other things, the problem was still there. Helping people realize that challenges still exist and the need is still there for your help is going to be one of our biggest difficulties in the coming months.”

Volunteers celebrating.

How can businesses help food banks and food pantries?

Given the increased need for financial and volunteer support due to the pandemic, business partners are more vital than ever in helping food banks and food pantries help their communities.

“Business partners are a huge collective force for providing funds for our organization and our work,” said Jeff. “Without those dollars, we wouldn’t be able to pay our drivers. We wouldn’t be able to have our warehouse space; we wouldn’t be able to afford fuel and so forth. Even though the food is all donated, we have to raise money in order to get that food where it’s needed most. Those dollars are so crucial for that.”

Here’s how businesses can help fight hunger as part of their own corporate social responsibility efforts:

  • Encourage employees to volunteer. Offer paid volunteer days or coordinate employee volunteering efforts. Volunteering at a food bank can be a great team-building exercise!
  • Donate funds to food banks, food pantries and other hunger relief organizations. (The American Family Insurance Dreams Foundation and American Family Insurance group companies are donating $275,000 in varying amounts to COVID-19 relief funds. In 2020 alone, they donated $10,000 to Feeding Missouri and $20,000 to Second Harvest Heartland.)
  • Organize fundraising efforts — and consider a corporate matching program to multiply the impact of employee donations.

If you’re concerned about making sure you or your business are supporting a trustworthy organization, both Scott and Jeff recommended starting with Feeding America. This network of food banks and nonprofit organizations has very stringent guidelines that ensure your support, and donations go to the right places. If a local hunger relief organization isn’t part of Feeding America, you can also check out (Opens in a new tab), which rates and scores nonprofits based on financial metrics as well as transparency and accountability.

A group of volunteers cheering.

With Your Help, We CAN End Hunger

Although hunger is widespread, both Scott and Jeff believe that it’s not an insurmountable problem — we can eliminate hunger in America if we all work together.

“Hunger is a problem that we can solve,” says Jeff. “It can seem very overwhelming when you look at the number of unemployed people and the great need that is out there. But there’s more than enough food in the United States to feed everyone. The issue is really getting the food to the people that need it.”

Scott shared the same sentiment: “We can solve America’s hunger problem once we all decide to make it a priority. Just the acknowledgment of the existence of the problem and then making it a priority to say we can fix it — that’s what we need. We’ve got too many resources, and as a nation, we’re too wealthy to have a food insecurity and hunger problem in America. Once we make it a priority, we have the resources here to take care of the problem. It’s just a matter of us all saying, ‘No more.’ If we all pull together, we can solve it.”

From donating and volunteering to starting a conversation on social media or at work, you have the power to help put an end to hunger for millions of Americans across the country. And there’s no better time to get started than today.

Looking for more ways you can support your community while pursuing your dreams? Take a moment to read real stories of regular people who are making a difference every day for inspiration, tips and advice on how you can make the world a little bit brighter for those who need it most.

This article is for informational purposes only and based on information that is widely available. We do not make any guarantees or promise any results based on this information.

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