The holiday season has always been a time for reflection, gratitude, and giving to others. This year, when so many Americans have been impacted financially by the COVID-19 pandemic, food donations are more important and more needed than ever.
Feeding America, the nation’s largest, domestic hunger-relief organization, reports that they are distributing 50 percent more food donations than last year. Many people are getting help for the first time due to financial hardships created by the pandemic.
In Illinois, about 1.3 million people did not know where their next meal would come from, even before COVID-19 struck. As a result of job losses and other factors, this number has grown.
COVID restrictions have changed some of the rules and processes for donating food this year. University of Illinois Extension educators Tayler Wheatley and Veronica Skaradzinski have some helpful tips and resources to guide you through the challenges so your gifts have the greatest impact.
How can Illinois residents find local pantries to take their donations?
Start by visiting the Find Food Illinois Community Resource Map for a list and contact information of local food pantries. “Be sure to call ahead before donating to confirm location-specific hours and protocols,” Skaradzinski says.
Find Food Illinois is also a great resource if you or someone you know is struggling with food insecurity any time of the year. The comprehensive food map combines all resources in one geolocation mapping tool, eliminating the need to check multiple websites and making it particularly convenient for those with limited access to transportation.
What items can you donate?
“Before donating, consider what you would serve to your own family and include that in your donations,” says Wheatley. Be sure to avoid donating food items that are past the use or sell-by date. Also, avoid donating perishable items, such as refrigerated items, baked goods, or leftovers, since most food banks have limited storage for perishable food.
While non-perishable shelf-safe food items are preferred, Skaradzinski adds a note of caution. “Non-perishables can be more processed and less healthy,” she says. “Look for shelf-stable items that are lower in sodium, saturated fat, and added sugars in order to provide healthier options.”
What items are most helpful?
“For helpful holiday donations,” says Wheatley, “you should consider cranberry sauces, canned pumpkin; stuffing; dry macaroni; low-sodium, canned veggies, such as corn, potatoes, green beans, and carrots; boxed potatoes; low-sodium broths; gravy mix; and dried herbs and spices.”
There are also staple items that food pantries always need, such as oatmeal, cooking oil, canned nuts, granola bars, peanut butter, low-sugar breakfast cereal, lower sodium canned meats (chicken, tuna and pork), sugar-free canned fruit or fruit cups, and no sugar added applesauce.
Should you run a food drive this year?
If your group or organization has typically held a holiday food drive, you might be looking for safer alternatives in light of the current COVID-19 restrictions. “In place of a food drive, consider hosting a ‘fund-drive’ to raise money for local food pantries or food banks,” suggests Skaradzinski.
There are numerous benefits to making this switch. For one, it allows for healthier choices. “Food pantries and food banks are able to use monetary donations to purchase nutritious foods based on local needs,” explains Wheatley. “It’s also convenient and safe. People can donate online, anywhere, at any time.”
“A fund drive is also far-reaching and makes better use of resources,” says Skaradzinski. “Pantries and food banks purchase foods at a reduced rate, which makes monetary donations stretch further. They also support local farmers and retailers by purchasing directly, which boosts the local economy and reduces food waste.”
If you’re looking for an easy way to contribute to an existing food drive effort, Skaradzinski and Wheatley point to Feeding America’s virtual fundraiser tool, which allows individuals or groups to raise funds in support of their ongoing efforts to provide meals for millions of families struggling with hunger.
For more information about Extension’s local food distribution services, find your county’s Extension office.