Making the Most Impact with Food Donations

December 11, 2023

The ask is simple: bring a canned good for the food bank. But what does that actually mean? What kind of canned food should you donate? What does the food bank need? And who will be eating the food?

You may have already participated in some food drives this holiday season or exchanged a canned good for entrance to an event. While all food can be used by those who need it, food banks are reaching out to let everyone know what types of food is needed most and some things to consider when donating.

Who Uses the Food Bank?

Every food bank is a bit different, but in general, anyone who needs food can access the food bank. There are many different reasons why someone would visit a food bank.

According to Food Banks Canada, nearly 1.9 million people accessed a food bank in Canada in March 2023 alone—a far greater number than they had ever seen before. That’s an increase of 32% compared to 2022.

As the cost of living rises, more and more people find they have less money left over for food after paying for things like rent, heat, and transportation.

The cost of living pressures are particularly felt in cities like Toronto, where it’s estimated that 1 in 10 Toronto residents have accessed the food bank this year. 

Especially in large cities, people who rely on food banks often are employed and living in housing that consumes most of their monthly income. The food banks help them avoid the impossible choice of going hungry or losing their homes.

What Does the Food Bank Need?

The holidays are typically when most food banks receive the bulk of their donations. Donations tend to be non-perishable food items like canned beans, pasta, canned soups, cereal, and juice.

Feeding America says that some of the most common staples at a food bank are:

  • Peanut butter
  • Canned soup
  • Canned fruit
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned stew
  • Canned fish
  • Canned beans
  • Pasta (most prefer whole grain)
  • Rice (most prefer brown rice)

Some things to avoid donating are expired food, leftovers, and baked goods.

While some food banks may not accept perishable food items like fresh produce, meat, and dairy, others may have the ability to accept and properly store these food items. 

Some food banks may also accept other necessities like personal hygiene products and clothing.

When in doubt, contact your local food bank about what types of donations they can accept and what is most needed at the moment.

Other Considerations

While food donations are great and much needed, there are other ways you can support the food bank and those who are accessing it.

Because most of the food donated to food banks is canned, consider donating can openers so that those receiving the food can open it if they don’t have a can opener. There are also ‘pop top’ cans that can easily be opened without a can opener which may be a good choice for a donation.

There are also other less common types of food donations that are sometimes overlooked.

While cake mixes and macaroni and cheese are also common types of donations, those kinds of food require fresh ingredients like eggs, milk, and butter and not all food banks are able to include fresh food to their clients. Taking stock of what your local food bank accept and provide to clients can help guide decisions around donations of dry goods and mixes. 

Food banks receive a lot of pasta but not as much pasta sauce. Consider donating canned sauces to go along with the pasta they’ve received.

In some cases, food bank clients may not have a stove or toaster oven to prepare food, like the pasta and sauce mentioned above. Consider donating food items that can be heated up in a microwave or eaten cold.

Food bank clients also may not have a variety of spices to help flavour their food. Consider donating things like salt, pepper, chili powder, garlic powder, and other spices.

Stretching a Dollar

Food banks can also accept monetary donations which helps them to purchase the items they need the most, when they’re needed the most.

Because they can purchase items in bulk, food banks will often be able to purchase food at a discount. This means that your monetary donation could buy more food than if you had purchased it yourself.

Supporting Each Other Without Judgement

Even though more and more people are finding it difficult to make ends meet, there is still stigma against using a food bank. According to the Maryland Food Bank, some people accessing food bank services may feel shame and embarrassment.

“In situations where people find themselves in need, especially for the first time, it’s common for them to feel embarrassment, anxiety, shame, depression, fear, and even a sense of isolation,” said Dr. Neda Gould, an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. “These emotions can be barriers to asking for help.”

It can be difficult to overcome these feelings, especially when things are already difficult.

“The challenges that food insecurity can create—the agonizing choices like buying groceries or paying bills, purchasing food or medicine, or even having to forgo some meals to ensure their children have enough to eat—are overwhelming enough, without the extra burdens of stigma,” says the Maryland Food Bank.

Ending the stigma starts with empathy and understanding. That’s why most food banks will help clients with no questions asked.

“The individuals who are struggling with food insecurity are really no different than others. They are human beings that had their lives derailed in some way, and it can happen to any of us at any time. If we can really practice compassion and empathy, we can start to eliminate some of these stigmas.”

Most food banks will welcome anyone. It’s important to remember that food banks exist to help people in need, not to judge them.

To find your nearest food bank, visit Feeding America or Food Banks Canada.