Thanksgiving is coming up, which means it's time for the big soup kitchen/food bank push for donations. These donations help hundreds of families who are struggling in today's economy.
My family has been on both sides of the donation baskets over the years. My dad lost his job back when I was small, and my mom always used to tell me how bags of groceries would magically appear on the front porch. More recently, there have been a couple of times I've had to pick up a box here or there to get my family through the week. I have both served and eaten at a soup kitchen.
Daddy eventually got a great job, and lately God has blessed my little family-now we are able to keep our shelves stocked and even give back to the places that gave to us. But I have learned a lot from our hand-to-mouth days, and I feel compelled to share a few tips and pointers for the next time you feel like donating to your local food bank.
I know all of the old adages, like "Beggars can't be choosers," "Waste not, want not," and "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth," but even the needy have some standards. Please keep these things in mind next time you go shopping.
First and Foremost: CHECK THE DATES
Please don't donate that can of cranberry sauce that's been in your cupboard since last Thanksgiving. Chances are it expired back in June, and I know some people think the dates on the cans are just suggestions, but honestly, if you aren't comfortable eating it, a person in need isn't going to feel comfortable eating it either.
If you aren't comfortable throwing away a seemingly good can of peas, a popular use for expired goods is putting the food in compost piles and recycling the cans. There are so many different uses for aluminum cans, I'm sure you can come up with a craft to do that will decorate your living room or office.
IF YOU WON'T EAT IT, CHANCES ARE THEY WON'T EAT IT
Grandma sent you a care package for your birthday with 3 cans of pickled pigs feet. Her note includes a detailed report of the lady next door who raises the pigs, butchers them, prepares the various meats, then sells them to neighbors and the local general store.
Um. Eww. I know you love Grammy, but pigs feet are definitely an acquired taste (I'm assuming, having never dined on this particular...delicacy.) I'm sure there are some people who love them, but rather than donate the cans to a food bank where some unlucky family will find them in a box, ask around. I'm sure you can find a friend or coworker who enjoys eating pig's piggies.
CHEAPER ISN'T BETTER
OK, so the local radio station is collecting cans for a food bank. Everyone who brings in 100 cans gets 2 tickets to see the hottest band EVER. So you hit the store. Over in the clearance section is 50 cans of prunes for 10 cents each. You fill your cart.
I have a feeling that if anyone in need actually wanted prunes, they would be able to afford the $.10 cans themselves. This type of donating defeats the purpose of a food drive. Head over to the regular aisles and pick up some nice cans of soup, fruits, or veggies. Or splurge, and buy some bags of chips, salsa, dip, or name brand cookies and cereal. Think of things that a needy family has to forgo in order to get the basics.
THINK OF THE WHOLE FAMILY
Needy families have kids too. Consider cans of baby food, formula, and 'kid' geared groceries. Goldfish crackers, kool-aid mix, mac & cheese (the fun shaped ones), boxes of cake mix, pudding, chef boyardee, and other 'kid approved' goodies are a great way to give a kid something he or she doesn't usually get to enjoy.
Food allergies are more and more common these days, and it does not discrimiate. Soy and almond milk has replaced cow's milk for many people, and gluten-free has become part of our vocabulary. Throw in some dairy free, nut-free, or other allergy conscious items. I sure don't want to see 'Homeless Bob' with a swollen face because the only thing he had to eat today was a pb & j.
SHELF FILLERS CAN BE A LIFESAVER
Basic needs, things that fill a shelf and are there in a pinch, are always needed and welcome. Tuna, peanut butter, pasta, rice, salt, oatmeal, and other staples can help a mom pull together a decent meal without having to add a whole lot. You'd be surprised what can be made with a can of ham and some noodles.
PERISHABLES ARE NEEDED, TOO
Not all places are equipped to handle perishable goods, however. Call ahead to make sure they can accept refrigerated items. If you are giving to a soup kitchen or shelter, offer to donate a portion of a meal--main dishes, side dishes, or desserts--for one day. Give hamburger meat, salad, or ice cream, just to name a few. Be sure to ask how many people they serve for one meal, or how much is needed. Most cooks in a soup kitchen are very good at making a little go a long way. Many places must prepare the food at their facility, so bring the ingredients and let them prepare the food.
DON'T JUST DONATE FOOD, DONATE TIME
I know it makes you feel better when you put a few cans in the box in front of the grocery store, but take a minute and think about what happens to those cans after you get your do-gooder high. Someone has to come and pick up those cans, sort them, fill boxes, and hand them out to families. Many times, donations are used to serve hot meals-which means they have to be opened, prepared, served, and cleaned up after. Make it a family affair and donate a few hours to a local soup kitchen or food bank. If dropping a can of tomato paste in a donation bin makes you feel good, think about how much better you'll feel when you drop 2 hours in a shelter.
MONEY IS GOOD, TOO
Food banks can take that money, and buy the things that they need right away. If their goal is to feed 100 families a full Thanksgiving dinner, and on November 22 they only have 80 boxes of stuffing, they can go out and get those last 20 boxes without having to wait for the public to provide. If a young mom comes in with a specific need-such as baby food or diapers-and it's not available at the shelter, they can go and buy her what she needs. An additional pointer in this respect: Be sure you give directly to the food bank of your choice. Scammers are always trying to get money from unsuspecting people. Either take it to the shelter yourself or mail a check to their main offices. If you aren't comfortable giving money, call and ask if there is anything specific that a food bank needs. They may be able to give you a list of goods that are needed immediately, or used most often.
I'm sure I missed some things, and I am not affiliated with any particular organization, but I speak from experience. Donating anything shouldn't be about you, it should be about the people you are helping.