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If you’re looking to donate food this holiday season, here’s what you should look out for before you hit the food pantry

The holiday season calls for giving. Food pantries across the country are receiving donations in droves, but what should you be giving?

One in six people in Charlottesville are considered food insecure, according to the PB&J Fund. The city exceeds the state average at 11.9% or over 1 in ten people.

Food banks are a way to curb food insecurity, according to . Many of the banks in the region rely on donations from retailers and civilians alike. 

But before you go through your pantry or head to Kroger to buy some goods, here are some tips to consider when donating this season:

Consider donating cash rather than goods

It’s not wrong to go out of one’s way to purchase and donate goods, said Sam Daane, operations manager for Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry. But a cash donation may serve more people than an individual donation. 

Daane wants donors to consider the buying power of their dollars when donating. Twenty dollars worth of groceries bought wholesale by the food bank can go a lot farther than the $20 worth of groceries bought at retail stores, she said.

Food pantries have a clearer picture of what their clientele looks for. For instance, Loaves & Fishes serves all kinds of populations in the area, but not all people eat the same. What a Latino patron may look for may not be the same as their rural, white counterparts. 

Different diets also come into play. Loaves & Fishes and other pantries are looking at ways to serve their consumers who may be vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free. 

Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry is in the process of finding halal retailers to serve its Muslim users. The effort is not easy, but Daane says retailers and donors are making an effort to meet their needs. 

“I used to do the same thing. I’d go and spend $50 on groceries and drop it off, and it would always be a mix, which was fine,” Daane said. “But knowing that if I would have donated $50 instead, that would have been amazing.”

Donate as if you’re grocery shopping — think more than just canned food

While families come to pantries looking for food, they are also typically on the lookout for other items. 

Daane said to consider donations as if you’re on a run to the grocery store. You may stop for a vegan egg substitute or brioche bread and grab a tube of toothpaste along the way. If you’re a person who recently had a baby, you may grab some diapers as well. Food pantries typically have space for such items, especially for toiletries for family members of all ages. 

For families using government assistance, such as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or Women, Infants and Children, they are limited in the items they can purchase. SNAP allows for its users to purchase groceries, but not items to complement those foods like paper towels or dish detergent. 

“[We get] a lot of requests for diapers, wipes, formula and feminine hygiene products. And for men as well, we get requests for diapers that men wear [Depends],” said Joseph Caputi, branch manager for the Thomas Jefferson Area of the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank.

People are hungry all year, not just the holidays

Food pantries all over are in their peak donation window. Daane said the food bank looks forward to aiding families throughout the holiday season, but the need for donations persists all year long.

For Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry, need peaks at the beginning of summer when school lets out. Students who rely on eating one or two meals a day at school are most vulnerable at this time as their families scramble to find ways to feed themselves throughout the summer break.

For Charlottesville City Schools, more than 54% of students qualify for Free and Reduced Meals, according to the Virginia Department of Education Office of School Nutrition Program. By school, the number touches over 85%. 

“Really it’s times of extended school breaks more than anything,” Daane said. “Those are the times that I wish people would also think about as well.”

Don’t forget the forgettables

When people envision food donations, it’s easy to forget the items that are oftentimes taken for granted. Daane and Caputi rarely get things like seasonings, condiments, salad dressings, or smaller kitchen tools, like can openers and vegetable peelers. 

Many of those who utilize the food pantry don’t have what others may consider basic utensils for cooking, Daane said. 

It’s common for people or retailers to donate items such as flour or eggs, but the food bank rarely sees sugar.

“We always have canned goods and boxed pasta. It’s the other things,” Daane said. “If we’re able to think a little bit outside the box, we can think about what goes with those canned goods or pasta.”

Tools are sometimes given through specific organizations, but Daane says it’s better to get foods that are tool-free. 

“One of the things that we love is when we get cans that you can peel open and don’t necessarily need a can opener for,” Daane said. “Not always easiest to get our hands on, but we love having that.”

If you wouldn’t eat it, don’t donate it

Around this giving time, it’s common for people to scrounge through their own pantries for unwanted, or maybe expired, items. The Food and Drug Administration offers a guide on how to know if the goods in your pantry are safe to donate.

“We get feedback from our clients and the interesting thing is that they don’t come for us for canned goods, they would rather have fresh produce,” Daane said. 

Homemade items are not permitted in food banks, but local farmers are free to donate produce to their local pantries. All produce will undergo inspection upon arrival and typically runs out faster due to its shorter shelf life and high demand. 

“I would like people to think we’re all humans,” Daane said. “If you’re not going to eat it, because you don’t like it, we should always take into account that it’s not necessarily something that we should give somebody else.” 

Contact your local food pantry before you give

Different pantries offer varying storage capabilities. Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry is the largest in the area and is capable of storing refrigerated and frozen goods. Smaller pantries may not be able to hold more time-sensitive items. 

Blue Ridge Food Bank and Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry continuously work together and with smaller pantries to meet the needs of the families they serve. 

Both managers urge donors to reach out to their local pantries before sending over their items. Not every pantry works with larger pantries, such as Blue Ridge or Loaves & Fishes, so there is a chance that items may be declined at arrival. 

It’s not a surprise for a food pantry to receive clothes donations. Food pantries are only capable of handling food, specific food items and toiletries. Coats and jackets may seem like a reasonable thing to donate during the winter months, but it’s important to make sure those items are donated at the right places.

Donation drop-offs and grocery pickup are available three days a week at Loaves & Fishes Food Pantry

Blue Ridge Food Pantry offers a local food pantry finder for its partners on its website.