Christmas is the season of giving, right? We see the bell-ringing Santa collecting money in front of the grocery stores. We get fliers in our kid's school folders reminding us that we need to donate and telling us when to do it. We're reminded that some of our friends and neighbors can't afford the holidays and that basic things like buying everyday food are a challenge. There are lots of opportunities to give and lots of people and organizations telling you why to give.
Can I tell you a secret?
I've used a food bank. I was a single working mom. My daughter was young and I was struggling to make ends meet. I remember more than one instance of lugging my daughter and her assorted kid paraphernalia up to the door of my apartment, placing my key in the lock and saying a silent (and sometimes not so silent) prayer that the lights and heat would still be on. I know what it's like to live paycheck to paycheck and I know what it's like to play the "how many days until my check clears" game. I know what it's like to hold my breath in the checkout line until I see the words "accepted" flash across the screen. I know what it's like to be the recipient of food baskets at holiday time and while receiving those gifts is humbling, I'm thankful that I had them.
I've been on the receiving end of giving enough to be passionate about being the giver now that I'm in a better place.
But have you ever thought about how to give?
If you're considering donating to a food bank or food pantry this holiday season, here are some things to think about:
Ask before you donate
Make sure the food bank you're interested in donating to is accepting donations ... the answer is probably yes, but also take a minute to ask what they might be short on and if they have a list of prohibited items.
Consider donating time
Donating food is a wonderful thing but if you have some time to give that's even better. If you have downtime during the holidays, ask if your local food pantry needs help. The answer is probably yes, and if they have all the hands they need, odds are they can recommend somewhere else that can use the gift of your time.
Don't underestimate your social influence
If you're short on money and time or you just want to do more, consider taking the needs of your local food bank or food pantry to social media. Get on Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram and let people in your circle know that your local food bank is accepting donations. If they have a great need for diapers or holiday food, blast that out. Social media influence is a powerful thing and if food banks are a cause you feel passionate about, share it loud!
Consider donating money or gift cards
If you don't have the time to round up non-perishable donations and you still want to help, give your local food bank some cold, hard cash. They won't turn it down.
If you've got spare gift cards lying around, donate those, too. If someone gives you a Visa gift card for Christmas and you want to pay it forward, give it to the food bank. They'll know what to do with it.
Make it a family affair
If your kids are old enough, involve them! Enlist their help in collecting items and transporting them to the food bank. My kids are super privileged. I'm not sure if I can make my six-year-olds really understand what it's like to not have food but I can set an example of how to be one of the ones who makes a difference.
Mark your calendar
Food banks get a surge on donations and offers to volunteer during the holidays because of course they do. This is a season of giving and a time of year where we're conscious of giving back. Consider setting a reminder to check back with your food bank in March and July and September when the need for donations may not be getting as much visibility.
Consider some of these items:
Olive oil, balsamic vinegar, spices, pickles, olives, cake mix, pudding mix, granola bars, popcorn, quinoa, gluten-free/Paleo friendly options (coconut flour, almond flour, gluten-free baking mixes), instant oatmeal that comes in the little single serve packages, baby supplies, feminine hygiene products, toiletries/personal care items, underwear and socks, coffee and treats.
Most people think of bulk packages of rice, beans, oats, and canned meat and veggies as suitable donations for a food bank -- and they totally are -- but don't think that someone who needs to use a food bank to make ends meet doesn't appreciate good tasting food or doesn't need convenience food. A large drum of oats you have to cook on top of the stove will make a lot of breakfasts but a working mom who is trying to get her kids fed and out the door in the morning might appreciate the little pre-measured instant packages.
I've volunteered at various food banks and food drives over the years and the one memory that sticks out in my mind is the lady who showed up to the donation station with a huge brown paper bag of full-size candy bars. I must have looked at her strangely as I accepted that bag overflowing with Butterfingers and Hershey Bars because she smiled at me and gently said "everyone likes a treat, don't they?"
I met her eyes and nodded kind of sheepishly because I'd been silently judging her for not fessing up a more practical donation, like a 10-pound bag of rice. I tried to imagine a mom opening that bundle of donated food and being excited to find chocolate included with the oatmeal, peanut butter and canned peas. I tried to imagine the kids who'd be on the receiving end of the unexpected treat ... it wasn't all that hard to picture in my head.
I've never forgotten that lady and her bag of candy bars and I've always tried to remember to include something fun when donating, like a box of candy canes and some little marshmallow santas at Christmas. Someone who is struggling to afford basic food items might not have much left over for treats and as my friend with the bag of candy bars once said: "everyone likes a treat, don't they?"