We're coming up on the holiday season, the time of year when most of us probably do all of our charitable giving. In November, food donations are especially frequent as we all prepare to sit around our own tables and give thanks for plenty.
Recently, I spent the day (along with all my co-workers) volunteering at Harvesters, one of our nation's largest food banks. My main job was to sort those very food donations that each of you generously provides. I learned quite a bit from the experience, so I wanted to pass along some of those observations about the food donation process.
What is a food bank or network versus a food pantry?
A food bank is a large warehouse facility that has tremendous purchasing power, then in turn, fills the shelves of local food pantries and organizations at little to no cost. Food banks handle donations from individuals as well as corporate and manufacturer donations, makes bulk purchases direct from manufacturers. Food banks also handle fresh bread and produce donations, many of which can move those donations quick enough to be able to leverage most of these perishable items in a day. It's a pretty amazing operation. Food networks are the combined power of food banks working as a group.
How many people require food assistance?
I don't have numbers for nationwide, but for Harvesters, in the 26 counties they serve, they feed over SIXTY THOUSAND people per week. This 60K people includes 550 nonprofit agencies; such as emergency food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, children’s homes, homes for the mentally disabled and shelters for battered persons. With the economic challenges, the demand has risen by 40 percent and continues to increase.
Once the donations are gathered, they go into large bins on a sorting floor. Volunteers and staff sort each and every item by hand into different food categories such as beverages, vegetables, meats and proteins, baking goods, and even baby items. Here is a behind-the-scenes look that might help you understand the donation process and maximize your gifts.
Each item that comes in a glass container has to be individually washed and placed in a separate bin to avoid risk of injury or breakage. Hint: Avoid donating glass containers.
Canned good are inspected for dents and damage. Some damage is unavoidable just in handling, but each dented can has to be reviewed and determined to be safe or not based on the condition of the can, size and location of the dent. When in doubt, it gets tossed. Hint: Avoid donating dented goods.
Once sorted, similar items, 24 different cans of green beans for example, must all be re-packaged as a group, even if they are not the same brand. This allows the items to be shipped to the agencies that need them in bulk quantities. Hint: The easiest donations for sorting and volunteer time are items purchased at a big box store like Costco and left in their bulk packaging.
Unique Items and Ethnic Foods
Even with additional time to sort these items, they have great value. Ethnic foods are very welcome, especially for food recipients of that culture. Unique items also help add variety and even premium quality to the food mix. I was pretty happy to see a lot of great organic items and a good mix of ethnic ingredients. Hint: It's a great idea to be inclusive of culture and quality food options with donations.
Save the Date
To keep the sorting a bit interesting, we all were on the lookout for the most obscure items. We were also advised to look for any kind of label that we knew was dated. Canned good items must be within a few years of expiration date. Preferably, they should not be expired. We found such exotics as a 1970s can of smoked oysters (that would be, like, lethal to eat!), a vintage box of gelatin, a glass jar of Borscht so old it was brown, and some Jiffy Pop in its pre-microwave stovetop form. Ancient instant coffee (old AND instant? That's just doubly cruel). Hint: If the item has been in the back of your pantry so long that it would cause bodily harm to consume, don't donate it. Especially baby foods and formula.
More Dregs from the Pantry Bottom
We also found random items like a box of drink mix, opened, with only one envelope in it, partially consumed items, a few miscellaneous tea bags in a plastic baggie. All of this refuse from folks' pantry clean outs has to be discarded. Why not do it yourself instead of wasting volunteer time? Hint: I did not enjoy cleaning out your pantry for you.
Making the Most of Your Donation
We all like a bit of snack items and sweets now and again. But, if you are in dire need, then the food items that are critical are the ones that have nutrition and substance. There are a lot of items that are especially needed, that list includes:
Canned vegetables Canned fruit Boxed meals - (Hamburger Helper, Pasta Roni) Canned Meat/Tuna Peanut Butter Canned Soup Cereal – hot and cold
Household goods, (think if you had to choose between food and toilet paper because you can't afford both), are also needed. Baby items like wipes and diapers. Quality, non-glass containers of NON-expired baby foods and cereals, formula are also highly valued donations.
The Harvesters site has a lot of great ideas about how to organize your own food donations, or have a party with friends to come volunteer together before you go have a drink, host a holiday dinner party and charge an "entry fee" of a food donation. You can even donate fresh produce from your own garden if you have a green thumb!
Really, there are a lot of great ways to give. 1970s smoked oysters are just not one of them.