For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, you shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.” Deuteronomy 15:11
Every day I work with people who are forced to make choices.
Pay their rent, or buy food.
Put gas in the car, or buy food.
Keep the lights on, or buy food.
They are students, retired, disabled, divorced, married, unemployed, and underemployed people.
They are your neighbors, co-workers, friends, fellow church members, and maybe even family members.
With 1.2 million food insecure people in New Jersey alone, you very likely know someone making these types of tough decisions.
So what can one person do in the face of such an overwhelming problem?
As I mentioned in my previous post Seeds of Love, one possibility is a donation garden. Part of the Grow to Give movement, a donation garden is just that – fresh vegetables, herbs, or fruits being grown for the express purpose of donating them to a food bank, food pantry, or directly to those in need. Of course, you can also donate surplus from your home garden too.
But if you don’t have a plot of land or a green thumb, there are other ways to support your local food bank or food pantry.
First, let’s examine the difference between the two terms food bank and food pantry.
Food banks are larger scale operations that receive donations from a variety of sources including government subsidies for meats and dairy. There are six food banks in New Jersey and they sell and distribute food to hundreds of food pantries across the state.
Food pantries are often found in churches and municipal buildings. They are generally only open a few days each month. They serve local populations and also receive donations from a variety of sources including food banks.
I am responsible for The Pantry – a food pantry that operates out of my church and serves between 120 – 150 families each month. Over the past year, I have learned a great deal about the needs of a food pantry…some of which you might never have contemplated.
Our pantry is a little different than most. We provide a “shopping experience.” That means that our clients get to shop for the food they need using a point system based on the size of their family, rather than getting handed a generic bag of food.
We have found this is a plus on many levels. First, it “normalizes” the situation. The client is in charge of his/her choices, and they can accommodate special dietary needs by choosing gluten-free or low sodium options when we have them.
Offering this food pantry shopping experience also makes us a better steward of our resources since we aren’t handing out food that might not get eaten.
So here are some do’s and don’ts if you want to support your local pantry:
- Do – purchase staples like pasta, cereal, peanut butter, jelly, shelf stable milk, canned fruits, vegetables, and soups. In fact, call your local pantry and ask if they have a particular need to fill. They’ll be happy to get a donation of exactly what they can use!
- Do – purchase the occasional low sodium, sugar, or gluten- free options to help those who are diabetic or have special food needs as mentioned above.
- Do – purchase “normal” size items. Sometimes we receive 10 pound bags of rice or industrial size cans of green beans. Bigger isn’t better for pantries because we can’t break it down. I’d rather get 10 cans of green beans to feed 10 families than one mega can that will only go to one1 family (and chances are they won’t get through it before it goes bad). Those mega sizes are better given to soup kitchens who feed large numbers in a single meal.
- Do – purchase items not normally covered by food stamps: toiletries such as deodorant, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, toothpaste, toothbrushes; …cleaning products such as laundry or dish soap; …feminine products; …diapers and wipes. These are a luxury at many pantries.
- Do – ask if your pantry can accommodate refrigerated goods. We have one person who donates several dozen eggs each week. We can make them available by the half dozen. And we can stock – as well as produce like apples, oranges, and grapes – because we have a refrigerator in our pantry.
- Don’t – donate junk food. Pantries are often located in impoverished areas that are food deserts. That simply means they are devoid of fresh fruit, vegetables, and other healthful whole foods due to a lack of grocery stores, farmer’s’ markets, and healthy food providers. Donating chips, soda, and the like just adds to the problem. For lunch box snacks, think applesauce, small cans of fruit, granola bars, and apple juice or water bottles.
- Don’t – clean out your cabinets. At least don’t donate from your personal stash without checking to make sure items haven’t expired. Time flies faster than you realize and most of us have at least one item sitting on our shelves that should be tossed because of an old date. In the past month I’ve received mustard with mold in it, orange marmalade that was brown, wormy rice, and a litany of other products that went right into the garbage. They were all unopened but all were expired by two, five, even 15 years!
- Don’t – give cans that have no labels, are rusty, or are extremely dented. They may be unsafe and will get tossed.
Especially at this time of year, remember that hunger doesn’t go on vacation. <<Click to Tweet
Summer months are tough on food pantries, so try to remember to pick up a few items each time you shop. You won’t even notice the few extra dollars.
Lastly, consider volunteering your time. Food banks often utilize groups of volunteers for sorting and distribution, and food pantries generally run on a shoestring budget depending heavily on the time and effort of volunteers. It is a humbling and educating experience that you won’t regret.
And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased. Hebrews 13:16 (ESV)
Toni loves God, her kids, caring for others, baking, chocolate!, and walking along the shores of her beloved lake – the setting for her blog. Toni has written devotions for christiandevotions.us and The Quiet Hour. She is praising God for the opportunity to make her passion - showing God’s love through practical acts of service - her new, full-time profession. As the Benevolence Ministry Manager for her church, she is able to hand car keys to a single mom, open the doors to the food pantry serving many area families, and assist those with urgent financial needs. Her life and ministry are living proof of the truth found in Ephesians 3:20 as God continues to do abundantly more than she could ever imagine.