When the pandemic began, Kim Foster knew food scarcity was going to become an issue. The James Beard award-winning author decided to help in the way she was most familiar: helping to feed the community.

“I ran a food pantry and fridge on the curb in front of our house in Las Vegas,” Foster, who is writing a book about her experience, told TODAY Food.

She said the idea started as a way to circulate resources and share items people purchased and did not use.

“So, you might have a lot of rice, but need pasta or toilet paper,” she said.

As the pantry grew, Foster learned the intricacies of food donation and the needs of people experiencing food insecurity in her community.

“In many ways, the little pantries expand the social contacts for people in the community,” she explained. “If you are feeding people, you know who is in need, and that means you can use your own social contacts to help people right there, without paperwork and bureaucracy.”

Food insecurity is a lack of consistent access to enough food for every person within a home to live, and because many hungry households do not qualify for federal nutrition programs, they rely solely on local food banks for survival.

Feeding America, the nation’s largest hunger-relief organization with 200 food banks across the country, estimates that 42 million people in the United States, including 13 million children, will experience food insecurity this year.

Best foods for food donation

Danice Tatosian, Director of Community Nutrition at Food Bank For New York City, told TODAY that what foods to donate or avoid donating is a topic that arises frequently.

“Protein and dairy are always a really great option,” she explained. “Fish, shelf-stable dairy, vegetables and fruit. Fresh is great, but dried fruit and canned vegetables that are low in sodium are good.

“Another category is culturally significant food. There is such a huge range of communities with specific needs, so kosher, halal and vegan foods are great to get.”

Foster told TODAY that in her experience as a smaller pantry, meat and fresh vegetables are highly coveted food items.

“A lot of the donation boxes have canned meat and cooked meat, like meatballs and chicken patties, to serve unhoused families, or folks without kitchens,” she explained. “But fresh meat and vegetables make people with kitchens very happy.”

For community grassroots food efforts like hers, Foster advised people to give what no one will get anywhere else.

“Pantry items,” she said. “Salt, sugar, condiments, baking items, spices, herbs, tomato sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayo, Sazón, garlic powder, hot sauce. Every couple of months we did giant pantry giveaways where the community gave us cash, and we just bought all kinds of pantry items. People loved it because they are getting boxes with squash and cooked meatballs, but no cooking oil, no salt. How can you make a dinner your kids will eat without salt?”

What not to donate to a food bank

Tatosian that while the food bank is appreciative of all donations, they do try to avoid certain items.

“We don’t accept anything in glass containers, because it can break and spoil other food,” she shared. “We really try to avoid, when possible, candy donations, sugar sweetened beverages — soda, sweetened teas, sports drinks — (and) baked goods such as cookies, cakes, pastries, sweetened muffins.”

For both large and small food pantries, donating spoiled or rotten food should always be avoided.

“Cars would drive by and drop bags full of groceries that I’d have to mostly throw out — open containers, grossly expired food, cookies with some missing from the sleeve, things that were moldy,” Foster explained. “It was its own full-time job just sorting through it all.”

Is it better to donate food or money to a food bank?

Tatosian told TODAY that, while all donations are helpful, monetary donations allow food banks to stretch a dollar.

“We have a really great purchasing power, so money would go a bit further, because we can purchase in a wide range at cost,” she said.

Regardless of donation, both Tatosian and Foster acknowledged a feeling of gratitude for people wanting to give.

“We’re very appreciative of donations,” Tatosian said. “It’s amazing that people want to donate.”

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