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November 11, 2022

Donating to a food bank? Give one of these overlooked pantry items

Philadelphia food banks share the items highest on their wish lists as they face heightened need this holiday season

Donations Food
food bank donations Jonathan Horwitz/The Desert Sun / USA TODAY

Food banks and pantries across the Philadelphia region recommend people donate produce, cooking oil, ramen, non-dairy milk products and box mixes. Above, a food bank in California.

Next week marks the official start of the holiday season, which for many is a nonstop buffet of turkey, cookies, potatoes and pie from Thanksgiving straight through New Year's Day. 

For those experiencing food insecurity, however, it can be hard enough to scrounge up a dinner, let alone a feast. Food banks tend to see more activity in the fall months as families seek help sourcing their holiday meals, but this year, Philly food banks are experiencing unusually high demand.

"Normally around the holiday months, we see people coming to food banks a little bit more," Loree D. Jones Brown, CEO of Philabundance, told PhillyVoice. "We're seeing that even more this year because of what's happening with inflation. I just spoke to one of our partners in South Jersey, and normally for the holiday time, they'd provide meals or turkeys for about 200 people.

"We're expecting 500 people to show up."

Philabundance isn't the only local food bank seeing 40-100% increases in demand. According to Ellie Crowell, the Delaware County pantry program director for the Share Food Program, the total people served this October in Delco "was the highest monthly number we've seen since Share began serving the county in July 2021."

Fortunately, November and December are also traditionally big months for giving to food banks, which greatly appreciate the help. But before you load 40 cans of creamed corn into your car, consider some advice from the people who run these programs.

PhillyVoice spoke with officials at Philabundance, Bebashi, the Share Food Program and Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project about the best ways to give during the holidays, including which pantry items to avoid and which ones they'd like to see in greater numbers. All involved asked donors to please refrain from giving any opened, spoiled or expired leftovers. Dented cans are also a no-go. Glass bottles and jars have posed hazards at Share Food, as have the frozen turkeys left in Mama-Tee fridges. The shelves of Bebashi tend to get overrun with soups, canned vegetables and sauces. And Philabundance unfortunately can't do much with cases of bottled water.

When in doubt, just think about what you'd like to eat.

"What I always remind people is we try to provide to people what we would provide our families," Jones Brown said.

With that in mind, here are seven wish list items that came up in conversation with officials fighting hunger in Philadelphia:

Fresh produce

Conventional wisdom says you only can donate canned produce to food banks, but almost every organization listed fresh fruits and vegetables as a priority. Items like apples, potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions can last multiple months in storage.

Cooking oil

You can't have a food pantry without actual food — whether that's cans of beans, boxes of pasta, or heaps of crisp veggies. But you also can't enjoy a lot of those foods without cooking oil, a wish list item mentioned by multiple groups.

Pancake mix

Box mixes are also a useful pantry item, since they require very few ingredients but produce filling foods. Pancake mixes make for a great breakfast, while muffin and cake mixes can provide sweet treats.

Non-dairy milks

The rise of almond, oat and other non-dairy milks has been a boon for food banks, since unlike refrigerated cow's milk, these dairy alternatives last for months at a time. The same is true for cow's milk produced through ultra-high temperature pasteurization, which usually comes in a box. 

Ramen

On blustery winter days, nothing satisfies like a soup. Rather than donating another can of Campbell's, however, consider some instant noodles. "Ramen is very, very popular," Janice Tosto, hunger relief supervisor for Bebashi, said. "We talk to our pantry visitors about the sodium, but then we try to teach them how they can reduce some of that sodium by adding extra water and that sort of thing."

Prepped meals

For those with a Mama-Tee Community Fridge in their neighborhood — painted yellow, they're hard to miss — prepared meals make an excellent donation. "Some of our neighbors don't have access to stoves," Dr. Michelle Nelson, the founder of the Mama-Tee Community Fridge Project, told PhillyVoice. "So a meal prepped with love, that is properly packaged and labeled with the date made is always welcome." Nelson also recommended listing ingredients, particularly allergens, on your donation.

Money

Cash donations can go a long way at food banks. As Madeleine Weko, the Philadelphia pantry program director at Share Food, explained, leadership usually buys in bulk, meaning a couple dollars can bring in a lot of stock. Donations to the program can be made here.

Philabundance is accepting donations on its website, as is Bebashi. Mama-Tee is currently chasing a goal of $125,000 on its GoFundMe page


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