The Proper Way to Donate at a Food Pantry

To the people who think of donating to food pantries as a way to toss out expired, no longer food that you yourself would eat, can I ask you to throw it away rather than use it as a donation. If someone goes to a food pantry, it's because they need to eat.
11/12/2015 02:00pm ET | Updated November 12, 2016
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Young woman and older man working at food and clothing donation center.

Some things are funny, some things never are.

I know that humor is subjective but when it comes in the form of dismissive unawareness to another's plight, I can't remain silent. Yesterday, I was at our grocery store when I overheard someone standing in line next to me say, "Oh, look. The Thanksgiving food barrels are out! You know what that means, I can clean out my cabinets of the turtle soup I never used!"

Oh, so funny, right? Nope. Nope nope and nope again.

Making jokes about dropping off orange marmalade from 2013 to people that need food, is never the stuff of jokes. I spoke up, I told her how if we were the ones without food, that we would appreciate items within their expiration date. (Maybe she'll listen to me, maybe she won't. You can't tell with people.)

There are people who count on the food donations that fill community food pantries. It's hard for me to think of families who make the trip to a pantry to find items there that so obviously scream 'discard.' I've heard jokes like this before.

When I was working and around a lot more people than I am now, our company would hold food drives. There would be laughter when someone would say, "Good! Finally a place to dump the canned artichokes I've been hanging on to for 10 years!"

To the people who think of donating to food pantries as a way to toss out expired, no longer food that you yourself would eat, can I ask you to throw it away rather than use it as a donation. If someone goes to a food pantry, it's because they need to eat.

Before writing this post, I called our area food pantry and asked them the best items to donate with the food donation barrels that are out for the month of November in grocery stores. I share this with you so that when you do pick up extra unexpired items at the store (as would be, you know, the loving thing to do) you'll choose these items, then educate others about these items, and if you have children, bring them along and let them learn about poverty and the need for food.

I wish you happy food drive pantry filling, and enjoy the warm fuzzies fluttering in your heart, when you do good:

1. Mixes and cereals made with water, instant oatmeal, baby cereal, pancake mix. Many households are without eggs, milk, or butter, so anything that only requires water is perfect. Think pancake mixes, cereals, oatmeal, Ramen, boxed noodles, instant rice. You get the picture.

2. Mac and cheese that comes with the cheese sauce in a foil pouch. Nothing needed but boiling water for the noodles. Stovetop stuffing is a great item, too.

3. Lots of canned protein. Turkey spam is really good and along with some boxed flavored noodle mixes, you can have a filling dinner. 6-packs of tuna are practical here.

4. Peanut butter. In all sizes and packages. I pick up the peanut butter crackers in a 10-pack because I know they 'll be used to build a protein-packed lunch for a hungry child.

5. Squeezable fruit sauces. These can be used for breakfasts, school lunch, after school snacks. We can help kids to get their fruits during times of doing without. Small lunch size cups of mandarins are great for Vitamin C. You can buy them in packs of 16. Also, fun sized cartons of Craisins, raisins, yummy yogurt raisins for added calcium.

6. Toothpaste and toothbrushes -- cute toothbrushes will make a child's day! I pick up four or five in a pack and toss them in. Along with fun flavored kid's toothpaste and floss, this is a nice surprise in any food basket.

7. Something special for kids. They're little, but not immune to the feeling of doing without. What fun to find bags of individual Oreos in the food basket your parent brings home. Wouldn't you like that if you were a child with little surprises in your life? Something that is unexpected and not a necessity, but a reminder of what makes you happy, that's doing good right there.

8. Remember vegetarians. Canned and dried beans/lentils/chickpeas for vegetarians. Minute Rice makes a dehydrated pack/combo of rice and beans together -- you add water to the fill line, they're delicious.

9. Essential personal items for hygiene: soap, shampoo, tampons, deodorant, toothpaste, laundry detergent, toilet paper. We all need these items in our daily life.

10. An item I always am sure to drop off in a food barrel: diapers.

This list is my guideline when donating to food pantries, and my children have become familiar with it, too. They even shared a copy with their schools for the food giving month of November. I'll vary it depending on the store I'm in, but one steady item that I will always include is two boxes of instant baby cereal. It only needs water, it's the first food many infants have, and what a relief for a mother to know that in her cabinets, her child has something to eat.

Be generous when giving during this season, and be assured of the appreciation and gratitude from those on the other end.

I know, because my family was one to receive food baskets at Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there could not have been a more beautiful sight to a family in need.