Get Involved

10 Things To Donate To Food Banks Around Thanksgiving & Christmas

Here’s what’s actually helpful during the holiday season.

mixetto/E+/Getty Images
Updated: 

We often think of the holiday season as a harbinger of cold weather, good food, and lots of celebrations. But it's also a time to think about how you can support your community at large, so that every family is able to feel safe and eat a warm dinner. For that reason, you might consider donating items to a local food bank before Thanksgiving and Christmas — especially since a lot of the products food banks need might already be sitting in your pantry.

"Holiday celebrations are often centered around food, and for families that struggle to afford groceries, it can be a very difficult time," explains Zuani Villarreal, the Director of Communication at Feeding America, a nationwide network of over 200 food banks. "Canned foods including beans, chicken, fish, meat, fruit, vegetables, soup, stew and chili are always welcome." More people than ever are going hungry; in the U.S., the COVID-19 pandemic has caused nearly one in four households to experience food insecurity this year, according to NPR.

You don't want to treat making donations like a pantry clean-out, though. Villarreal makes a point to caution those who wish to donate against giving food banks anything with glass or cellophane packaging, or anything that has been broken or otherwise tampered with, or doesn't have a label. You should also be COVID-safe this year by following food bank guidelines around donations. Many have set up mobile pantries, drive-through donation centers, and no-contact food collection points, so you can donate safely. Donating money is also a way to stay COVID-safe while supporting food banks' important work.

When donating items to food banks, you should look for food that's preferably canned, has a long shelf life, and is nutrient dense. Here are some suggestions to get you started:

Money

Of course, giving canned goods or food items isn't the only way you can give back. You can always donate directly to your local food bank, so they are able to use the funds toward buying food more inexpensively in bulk. This may be the most effective way to help the hungry in 2020, particularly if you or anybody in your bubble are at high risk for COVID-19. Some food banks may only be accepting monetary donations in light of the pandemic, too. Follow the online donation directions for your local food bank.

Canned Fish & Meat

Canned fish and meat are great donation options because they're high in protein and can last for years before expiring. Look for items that have low sodium, like canned tuna or chicken.

Canned Foods With Pop-Top Lids

If you're getting canned food, whether it's veggies or tomato sauce or meat, try to find the cans with lids that just pop off. That way, it's as easy as possible for people to access the food without any extra tools like a can opener.

Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a great donation item, since it's high in protein and healthy fats, and also has a long shelf life. Similarly with canned meats, you should try to find peanut butter without many added ingredients or unnecessary sugar.

Spices

It might not be the first thing you think of, but donating a collection of spices (all unopened, obviously) is a great way to give back to your local food bank. Possibilities include cinnamon, chili powder, cumin, and other salt-free spice blends — all of these spices will be able to add flavor to pretty much any meal that a family wants to make.

Unsalted Nuts & Dried Fruits

Unsalted nuts and seeds, like almond or pumpkin seeds, are a great donation option because they can be easily added to a recipe and are high in protein. Nuts and granola bars are some of the food items in highest demand at food banks, Villarreal says.

"Instant" Holiday Meals

"Instant" holiday meals like instant mashed potatoes are always in high demand at food banks during the holiday season. "Some of the most needed items at food banks during the holiday season are meals in a box, instant mashed potatoes, canned sweet potato [and more]," Villarreal explains.

Shelf-Stable Milk

Instead of fresh dairy, donate shelf-stable milk, i.e. milk that can be stored in room temperature conditions without expiring for years. Shelf-stable milk can be labeled ultra-high temperature pasteurized, or UHT, which means it can be stored safely without refrigeration. It also comes in special packaging that preserves it so it doesn't have to be refrigerated. If it's in the non-fridge section of a grocery store, it's probably shelf-stable.

Canned Or Dry Beans

Canned or dry beans are another high protein, low maintenance canned food that can contribute to many different types of recipes. Other types of canned vegetables are a great idea too, though you definitely want to double check what the ingredients in the preserved veggies or beans are.

Whole Grain Pasta

Pasta can last for a long time before expiring, and it's super easy to make. Feeding America notes that many food banks prefer whole grain pasta, so check the preference of your local bank before you stock up for them. As with all the other food, make sure the packaging is clearly labelled and that it's not open or torn, as that might mean the food bank has to throw it out.

If you have a desire to volunteer during the holidays, Villarreal urges you to contact your food bank first. "We encourage people to call their food banks ahead of time and find out if they have volunteer slots available," she says. "If they have enough volunteers for that day, there are several other ways to help during the holidays." Some food banks are asking volunteers to work from home to remain COVID-safe during the holidays. You can read about some more ideas for helping during the holidays here.

Experts: Zuani Villarreal, the Director of Communication at Feeding America

This article was originally published on