December 7, 2023


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What Food Pantries Really Want You to Donate

3 min read

Every holiday season, Alex Nava, a health specialist in San Rafael, California, sees more people at the food pantry she helps coordinate than at other times of year. But what she’s been seeing lately is something else entirely. “We have absolutely noticed an uptick in the number of people relying on our food pantry,” says Nava, who works at Canal Alliance, a nonprofit mostly serving Latino immigrant families. It’s straining the pantry, which serves an estimated 1,200 families each week. Nava says some folks are so desperate for extra food she’s seeing families split up in the line hoping to get more provisions.

Across the country, money’s tight: US consumer debt is climbing and 39% of Americans report they’ve skipped meals to keep up with housing payments. And while a Thanksgiving turkey might cost less this year, food prices in general are expected to continue rising throughout 2024. Plus, some families are struggling with the rollback of temporary pandemic food assistance programs, dwindling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits thanks to a political tug-of-war estimated to leave 750,000 people at risk of losing access, and inflationary times driving cost of living to unreachable heights. “Clients are saying they don’t receive their food stamp benefits anymore, or that they don’t receive as much financial support as they used to from these types of services,” says Nava.

It’s not just Canal Alliance’s food pantry that’s experiencing increased demand right now. Louder, more widespread calls for donations can be heard around the country. For those who want to help, though, it’s not always clear which items are most helpful at food pantries. Bon Appétit spoke to organizers in California, New York, and Louisiana to learn more about what their communities really need most this year. One underrated item: “Definitely put an emphasis on the diapers,” says Nava. Here are all of their edible (and non-edible) donation suggestions.

Holiday staples (and treats)

A holiday meal is “a whole additional cost on top of a family’s regular monthly food budget,” says Jamie Levato, the executive director of Fareground, a mobile food pantry operating out of Beacon, NY. On top of main meal staples, like turkey and ham, Levato encourages dessert donations. “People do like to have a sweet treat at a special occasion,” they say. Specific ideas might include:

  • Cranberry sauce
  • Boxes of stuffing
  • Turkey breasts, small turkeys, and hams
  • Vegan entrees
  • Broth
  • Rolled oats
  • Dessert ingredients (pie crust, condensed milk, canned pumpkin, apple, cinnamon, flour, sugar, butter, and more)
  • Seasonal vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts and potatoes
  • Advent calendars

Culturally appropriate and dietarily specific foods

Stocking Latino staples means families in the San Rafael area can “focus on their culture and family time” while continuing their favorite traditions, says Nava. Asking for support is hard enough, adds Levato, and offering options that cover people’s diverse dietary requirements helps clients “feel welcomed.” Though you’ll need to check in with your local pantry to understand which communities it serves, consider purchasing:

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