How to help food pantries in your community

Jill Sanders
Northern Regional Program Manager, FoodWIse
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Division of Extension
(715) 346-1664

Total Time: 7:23

0:15 – What should we think about when donating?
3:12 – How to find places in need
4:37 – How to help without donating
5:44 – Extra thoughts on foods to donate
7:12 – Lead out



Adam Wigger: What to give to food pantries this season. Today, we’re visiting with Jill Sanders, Extension Northern Regional Program Manager for FoodWIse, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, and I’m Adam Wigger. Jill, it’s the time of the year where a lot of people are thinking of donating to food drives and pantries. What should we keep in mind as we choose what foods to donate? 

Jill Sanders: So in thinking about what foods really, really help people I’m looking at MyPlate model as our guide to nutrition quality and best food choices for people. So, for example, within, fruits and vegetables looking at fruits that are canned in 100 percent fruit juice, and looking at vegetables that might be canned with little to no salt. There are things, even though that’s the time of year where there aren’t fresh fruits and vegetables readily made available, there’s still things we can do in our control that allows for better choices. Like I said, no added sugar with the canned fruits and low and no salt options for vegetables. We look at grains, we’re looking at foods that have whole grain, taking away the cookies and the starches and refined products and looking more at whole grains, not as much white pasta, whole grain pasta, not as much white rice, but whole grain rice. And looking at less of the sugared cereals, more of a whole grain cereal, whole grain cracker. Little things add up, especially when a family is given options at a food pantry that are in our control and looking at things that fall within the protein area, we can still provide protein that low and no salt added, such as canned chicken, tuna, salmon and dried beans, nuts, peanut butter, canned beans, different options are available. A lot of dairy is purchased within the food pantry, but still looking at it through that lens. A good option is often and looking and working that a food drive. And I don’t know if the person has the capability to organize the food drive themselves, then they can provide a list of preferred foods. The list of things that would be preferred for donating that really gives people something to focus on in purchasing food to really help people talking to the pantry directly. Seeing what they actually mean is a great idea. So pantry directors have really specific ideas of what they need and don’t need and they might be really looking for a certain amount of different types of food and communicating directly healthy food options is a great way of getting a more narrowed down list of what is needed. I know churches that I’ve worked with often will say, well, we’re going to do a peanut butter drive because peanut butter is needed. And then that’s just the focus of the drive. Another great thing to consider and sometimes is not considered is just giving cash, giving money. A money drives. That money can be directly donated to the pantry and they can use for fresh fruits, vegetables, eggs, low fat milk, the things that they might need to go out and purchase meat options and leaving all those shelf staple foods right out of it. The foods like the mac and cheese and canned beans that add up from the floor to the ceiling of a food pantry that may not get utilized in the best way possible.

Adam Wigger: How can listeners find food pantries or donation centers near them? 

Jill Sanders: Knowing your community, knowing what food pantries exist within that community, United Way 211 is often a great way to figure out where those food pantries exist. Churches are often connected directly to food pantries. Community resource guides often have food pantries listed in them and their numbers. emergency services, Health and Human Services. Anybody that’s in a health helping type of organization, including UW Extension FoodWIse, is your contact. They’re connected FoodWIse is guaranteed to be connected to the food pantry. What’s great with working with FoodWIse, is they could offer all those tips, suggestions for healthy food donations that would be the most helpful and that they can incorporate them into their education to provide recipes and ideas to use that food. Sometimes it’s not just about getting people food, it’s making sure they have the education that goes with the food that’s given. So, for example, if we give a lot of dried beans out, those might just end up sitting in the bottom of a cupboard. But if we have somebody that takes them out shows that they’re not that hard to use recipes, ideas to stretch the family meal with them, those beans become a live part of the family meal and can be a significant source of healthy protein for a family. 

Adam Wigger: Are there other ways to help out without donating food or cash?

Jill Sanders: Definitely. Pantries are always looking for volunteers, are always shorthanded, it seems, with help. Let’s say the pantry distribution hours conflict with a person’s work schedule, there’s still other opportunities in most pantries to go in and. Sort out food from a donation to sort out expired foods that no longer able to use, to get things ready, to do basic paperwork on the backend, to provide marketing and help in getting the word out to pantry recipients. I know around this time of year pantries are definitely looking for help with extra holiday baskets, delivery of driving drivers for pantries that reach people out in rural areas of Wisconsin. It just seems like unending options it’s just a matter of reaching out to what pantries really are looking for people. And I I have yet to find a pantry that says no. We have all the people we need right now, always looking for volunteers.

Adam Wigger: Do you have anything else to add? 

Jill Sanders: I think from a personal level, it’s something that if you’re not going to feed this to your family, it’s probably not the best donation to consider giving. Families that are eating food pantry foods are putting together family meals, individual meals, just like everybody that eats, which includes everybody in the community. So if you yourself is questioning this product, the quality of it, it’s not the best donation to consider. If it’s expired, if it’s a little bit damaged, if it’s unlabeled, a little bit rusty, maybe it’s been open; people donate interesting things thinking that it’s helpful. But yeah, I guess just putting that basket, that lens, would I use this today or tomorrow and for my family? And so the answer is no, it’s not the best donation to consider. And so I really appreciate that when that drives that happen, that people go out and buy brand new food and organize such a drive that focus with a specific need for a food pantry. And if you’re using a pantry, to get what is needed, there’s very good options. They have healthy food options that you can put together for the people that are donating, have ideas of what and what not to donate, it’s not an opportunity to empty out your cupboard and get rid of all those things that you haven’t used, that you don’t aren’t even sure what exactly they are. Because guess what? The recipient of the food doesn’t know what it is either. It’s one of those things.

Adam Wigger: Thanks, Jill. We’ve been visiting today with Jill Sanders, Extension Northern Regional Program Manager for FoodWIse, University of Wisconsin-Madison Division of Extension, and I’m Adam Wigger.

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