What to give to a food bank
Ever wanted to donate to a food bank, but not known what to give or how to help? A food bank was set up in my area during 2013, but then for months I held back because I wasn’t sure quite how to donate. I read several online discussions which reached different conclusions, and the more I pondered, the more complicated it seemed! I wanted my donation to be appropriate, but ended up over-thinking it. Eventually I phoned my local food bank to find out – and here is what I learned. Read this article, find a food bank, make a shopping list, get donating!
Food poverty is a topic close to my heart. When I was a student, there were no food banks – but there were many occasions when I had no money for meals. I walked down busy streets in the evening looking for dropped pennies, then went into the supermarket just before closing time, hoping for some discounted bread so that I could afford toast to go with a 3p can of baked beans. One night I stood outside the Beigel Bakery in Brick Lane, counting my pennies, trying to work out what I could afford to eat. A passing stranger pressed a pound coin into my hand, said “Get yourself something sweet” and walked away as I called out thanks. That night I bought six beigels, some with filling, to share between myself and my partner; it was the only thing we ate that day. It is telling that twenty years later, that stranger’s act of kindness is still imprinted in my memory. So, now that I’m able, regularly donating to a food bank is my way of paying it forward. We never know when we will find ourselves in that position, and you can be sure that people using this service are not there by choice.
What I bought for a food bank with £20. If you’re not sure what to get, start here.
Find your local food bank and ask what they need.
Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Locating your nearest food bank is probably best achieved by typing your locality and “food bank” into google. Otherwise, the Trussell Trust runs many of them, but several are run by other groups or individuals – mine is organised by a Children’s Centre. If you’re still having no luck, try asking a nearby church, or your local council, who should know where food bank services are provided.
When I initially asked what would be most appreciated, I was told “anything! We would be grateful for anything at all, thank you!” While this is a kind thing to say, it isn’t actually helpful – it didn’t tell me what would be inappropriate, or if there was anything they might prefer me to supply. So, although I would urge you to ask your local group what they most need – as well as what they have plenty of – I provide a list below, giving you some items which will always be welcomed, as well as a heads up on which things you should check before including.
It is important to be aware of the needs of users in your community, so here are a few points for thought:
- Fuel poverty – not everyone can afford to run a stove, so include some items which can be eaten cold, or just require boiling water. There may also be service users who are living in temporary accommodation and don’t have access to a kitchen – make sure you include things for them to eat.
- Short term vs long term need – does your food bank cater for people over the longer term, or those who have lost benefits for a few weeks but will be ok thereafter, or a mix of both? People with short term needs will probably just require basic food items to get them through. Those with longer term needs may not have cutlery, cooking equipment, can openers, and may also need additional items for cooking such as vegetable oil and salt.
- Following on from the last point, if your food bank doesn’t ensure everyone has access to a can opener, then it might be better to provide some canned items which come with ringpulls.
- Weird and wonderful items – assume that people using food banks have only basic cooking skills, so they won’t know what to do with that jar of octopus tentacles that’s been at the back of your cupboard for months, nor do they want olives or caviar – they’d rather you spent the money on something simple and filling that will go further.
- Special diets – because I live in a very multicultural area, I had initially thought that I ought to consider halal food items. In fact, Muslim people tend to seek help from the community at their mosque, rather than a food bank – so this is less of an issue. My local food bank merely distinguishes between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets. I asked about other special diets such as coeliac or dairy free, but they see very few people with these requirements and are able to cater for them from their regular stock. So I would suggest you include a good selection of vegetarian food – in any case, this is more affordable than meat and fish – but don’t spend money on expensive halal / kosher / gluten free items, unless your local food bank has said that this is something that they need.
Remember that food banks receive lots of donations from Harvest Festivals, and at Christmas time. However, it’s during the summer holidays, when parents have to feed children who would otherwise eat at school, when their needs can be forgotten. If you are able to make a regular donation – be it monthly, quarterly, or just annually – then please think about the time of year and find out when your food bank’s stocks run low or when there is the greatest need.
Basic / value priced items are perfectly fine. In fact, they are preferable in many cases. It’s simple: a food bank is providing SOMETHING to people who have NOTHING. They are not going to be brand-conscious or judgemental as to what has been offered. If you have a choice between buying two cheap bags of pasta, or one branded bag of pasta, buy the cheaper ones – that way twice as many families will be fed. Even if you choose to donate the most expensive Scottish salmon, a can of cheap tuna may be handed out in preference if that is what will expire soonest. So spend your money wisely and get as much as you can (of a decent basic quality) in order to help as many people as possible. Even just a few pounds will go a long way.
Essential food items which can be eaten cold, or made up with boiling water from a kettle, for example:
• Smash (powdered potato)
• Couscous (plain or flavoured)
• Instant noodles
• Tea and instant coffee
• Rice pudding in cans
• Longlife milk
• Longlife fruit juice
Canned items that can be heated and used to make up a meal:
• Meat and fish, such as canned tuna or frankfurter sausages
• Canned vegetables, such as potatoes, carrots, peas, sweetcorn
• Pies (e.g. Fray Bentos or Princes’ Steak and Kidney)
• Canned desserts, such as sponge puddings
Cooking oil is always in demand.
The following basics are very useful. I’ve only put them in the “usually” list because many food banks are inundated with certain items (such as sacks of rice, or cans of beans) and may prefer to receive an alternative. So if you’re not able to check, these items will almost certainly be appropriate and welcomed, so please donate them; but if you are able to find out what’s in demand, that would be even better. I know our own food bank have enough cans of baked beans for several years!
• Rice (these usually can’t be split into individual portions, so buy several smaller bags rather than a large sack, even if it seems less cost efficient)
• Pasta (any type that can be cooked in hot water)
• Canned pulses such as lentils or beans
• Canned tomatoes
Toiletries are usually given out by food banks. I’m told that men’s needs are often forgotten. Also, I was told that nappies are the one thing that are always needed and will definitely be used. So I would suggest:
• Shampoo / 2 in 1
• Shower gel
• Disposable razors
• Nappies (disposable, unisex)
Flavourings help to bring plain meals to life, and are inexpensive. They are important if your food bank provides long term support for people who will no longer have these in their cupboard:
• Salt and pepper
• Stock cubes
• Herbs and spices
• Tomato puree
Children’s lunchbox items are usually welcomed too, such as:
• Cereal bars
• Dried fruit
• Juice boxes
Check before donating:
Sanitary items are often welcomed, but not always. Some food banks have a supply of toiletries and say “take what you need”; others provide pre-prepared bags and would not feel able to have that conversation with whichever member of the household has come to collect groceries. So always check that your own food bank can use these items. However, if they say yes, I would make sure to include some in every donation. Give pads, not tampons, as a pack of pads can be used by young teenagers as well as mothers, and those of all cultures and beliefs. Don’t be tempted to donate Mooncups or other unconventional items – when you’re at your lowest ebb and having to ask for help at a food bank, you don’t want someone’s hippy ethics forced upon you. It may be well meaning, but this is not the time for it.
Baby formula and foods may also be welcomed, but they are expensive, so before buying, check that your food bank accepts them and currently has a need for them.
Pet food is accepted by some food banks, but not all. My local organisation takes the view that they are there to feed people. (If someone opts to give their tuna to the cat, that’s their choice.) If you have excess pet food to donate, check out local animal rehoming centres instead.
Sweets and treats: Many food banks will take these, and appreciate the importance of a treat to boost morale now and then – who doesn’t love a choccie bikkie? However, some organisations prefer that only healthy food is donated (some even request only wholegrain cereals!) While I think it is good to include something to enjoy as well as essential food items, I recall sending luncheon vouchers as a gift to a homeless friend. I asked her to please spend 50p of the £10 vouchers on something she’d enjoy – a bar of chocolate, for example. I really wanted her to have something to savour for a moment. But she told me that she just didn’t think she could honour that – she needed the money too much, and that 50p could be another bag of pasta. So if you are planning to include treats in your food bank donations I would encourage you to add them as an extra, rather than instead of essential items which could send someone to bed with a full stomach. And make sure that whatever you donate will be welcomed.
Non-food items such as toilet roll and laundry powder might be accepted, but it depends on whether your food bank has the capacity to administer them, and whether they are providing long term assistance rather than short term aid. If you’re not sure, I would leave them off. As a student I used to scrounge loo roll from public toilets and wash my clothes by hand in the sink, so if people have to make do without these items it is better than going hungry. Unless you know they are welcome, spend your money on food.
Fresh food can sometimes be used, particularly items like apples and potatoes which can survive for a couple of weeks. Again, check whether your food bank has the capacity to handle them – you might be better off donating excess from your garden or allotment to a charity which provides hot meals to homeless people (ask local churches to find out where).
Opened and out-of-date items probably won’t be accepted, but it is worth checking before you chuck them out. If the date was a “best before” rather than a “use by” and is not far over the limit it may still be useful. Opened items can’t be used unless they are individually wrapped.
Baking mixes should be avoided unless they only need water to be added. Giving a cake mix may seem kind, but the recipient may not have the eggs, oil or milk necessary to make up the pack. Don’t donate anything which requires the addition of extra items.
Alcohol – food banks don’t wish to accidentally enable alcoholics. This includes items such as Christmas puddings – make sure that nothing you donate has booze as an ingredient.
If you have no money but would still like to help out…
If you’ve been inspired by this but really don’t have any money spare to donate items, here are two other ways you might help:
Volunteer! Do ask whether you can help in some way, if you’re able to donate your time. It might be collecting from local groups having a food drive, sorting items or making up bags – you don’t necessarily have to engage with service users if you don’t feel comfortable with that (although, why not?)
BOGOF! If you see a “buy one, get one free” offer in the supermarket, why not choose that item instead of your usual brand, and set the free one aside to give to the food bank? As long as it’s a longlife item, it can probably be used.
And if you really have no money – and are having to decide whether to eat, or spend your rations on other items – please use a food bank if you need to. Some require a reference from your GP, benefits office or social services, but others – like near me – will take self-referrals, or those from other community organisations. Don’t be afraid to find out – it’s better than going hungry, and as I’ve proved, it can happen to anyone. There’s no shame in needing help, especially under the current government’s appalling austerity measures. Please, seek assistance if you need it.
On behalf of anyone who needs to use a food bank, thank you. I remember that kind stranger from my student days, and I’m sure the families fed by food banks will be touched by your generosity too.
Have you found your local food bank yet? Why wait? Go and add items for them to your shopping list! Let me know if you think of anything I’ve missed.