Dear Recyclebank: What types of food can I donate, and what food should I just throw away? Where do I find a place to donate food? –Gina
Dear Gina: Donating food is a great way to help the community, and often, a great way to reduce the amount of food waste you’d otherwise generate — an estimated 20 pounds of food per person per month ends up in landfills. But because of food safety issues, donating food can be a complicated matter.
To try to straighten out the facts, we contacted the national office of Feeding America, which is a network of most of the United States’ food banks — that’s 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries. This network aims to end hunger by providing around 3.7 billion meals each year. To do this, “We need every bottle and can and box of food that people have to give us,” says Ross Fraser, spokesperson. Most of the food donated is excess inventory that comes from farmers, manufacturers, retailers, and even the government; a small percentage also comes from personal donations, particularly through organized food drives.
And while a food drive is a good chance to clean out your pantry of nonperishables that you don’t plan to use, there are still some guidelines around what a food pantry will accept. Fraser says, “Donate food that passes the litmus test that you would eat it yourself.” Here are some other guidelines:
- Stick to nonperishables only — and avoid any foods you’ve prepared at home.
- Food should not be expired.
- Food should be in a sealed package that is not ripped, bleached, missing its original label, or otherwise compromised.
- Cans of food should not be rusty.
- Avoid food in glass containers, as it can break in transport.
- Consider giving food based on nutrition, usefulness, and quality, rather than quantity — the Austin Food Bank has a great list of nonperishable items that are the most beneficial, and therefore among the least likely to go to waste.
For perishable foods, donation gets a little trickier. For example, Fraser cautions that the only prepared foods that are accepted are commercially prepared foods that have not been served — and that they need to be transported quickly and according to certain safety guidelines, such as in a refrigerated truck. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to donate these items.
If you are planning a catered event like a large party or wedding and know you’ll have extra prepared food, you may be able to make arrangements to donate them by getting in touch with a local food pantry or soup kitchen in advance.
Commercially-prepared foods from caterers or places like bakeries, which often have leftovers each night, can work with organizations like Rescuing Leftover Cuisine, which works with licensed restaurants, hotels, and caterers in certain cities to “rescue” excess prepared foods before they go bad. “We get pounds and pounds of bagels, pastries, authentic South African cuisine, fruits and vegetables, raw ingredients, and much more,” says Monica Hunasikatti, Community Outreach Analyst for Rescuing Leftover Cuisine.
And as for gardeners who find themselves with a bumper crop of something? The fruits of your labor probably can’t go to your neighborhood food pantry, but check out Ample Harvest, which accepts fresh produce.
Remember: Even if you can’t donate foods to a legitimate source, it’s always best to keep unwanted food out of a landfill, where it can create methane gas while it decays. Compost what you can, give to friends with backyard chickens, and find creative ways to cook with odds and ends before they spoil.