How Food Banks Work

Seattle Food Bank
In the past year, the price of groceries has jumped nearly 5 percent and the costs some staples like milk and bread--the core of a college diet--have shot up by more than 30 percent. That's driving up demand at food banks and prompting some students to apply for food stamps.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

When resources are stretched tight, making ends meet can be a challenge. Families in the United States are being squeezed by high prices on one side and dwindling jobs, disappearing benefits and a shrinking dollar on the other. More and more are turning to a national network of food banks and free food outlets for help.

There are more than 200 food banks in the United States that serve more than 63,000 agencies providing meals or food to the public on a regular basis. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that these organizations distribute more than 2.5 billion pounds of food to the hungry every year. If the economy continues to falter, even that may not be enough.


Hunger in the United States is at its highest point since 1994 when the USDA started keeping detailed records. Figures released by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2009 indicate that 44 million people, or one in seven, are living at or below the poverty line. This is defined as having a pretax income of $10,830 or less for a single person and $22,050 for a family of four.

On the next pages, we'll take a look at how food banks operate and where they get the food they help bring to American tables. We'll also discuss ways you can help to make mealtime a certainty for children and families who need a helping hand.


What's a Food Bank?

Food banks are distribution facilities that warehouse, repackage and distribute contributed food to member organizations and charities. They receive food from a number of national and local sources. Although they rely heavily on surplus food donated in large quantities, local food drives and individual donations are important, too:

  • USDA commodities - Every year the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service provides 1.9 billion pounds of food to stock part of the National School Lunch Program and provide food to the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP), the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR) and The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) that allocates food to state and local agencies for distributions through food banks or to feeding sites like soup kitchens and homeless shelters.
  • Large donations - Food banks solicit and rely on large donations from local and national businesses and nonprofit organizations. These are often in the form of surpluses from food manufacturers, retailers and growers. They include items like unsold bread and produce and manufacturing production overruns.
  • Other donations - Local businesses, faith-based charities, state government resources and sometimes other food banks with overages provide food, too. Donations also come from people like you through walk-ins or from food drives where you shop, work or worship.

Now that we know what a food bank is and where the food comes from, let's take a look at how food banks distribute the bounty.


How Do Food Banks Distribute Food?

Although local charities like faith-based missions and soup kitchens sometimes receive donations directly from private citizens or businesses, they often turn to food banks as their primary source for staple, nutritious foods.

Food banks can vary in their distribution methods, but they usually support a list of member organizations and maintain a warehouse of goods available for pick-up or delivery. Food banks typically receive foods in bulk and repackage them for delivery. They have procedures similar to those of most distribution-related businesses, like an accounting department and warehouse and maintenance personnel.


Member organizations are required to meet specific criteria to become eligible to receive food. They must prove that they provide meals or food free of charge at their facilities, maintain an ongoing feeding program, and meet state and federal tax or nonprofit guidelines. Member organizations may include:

  • faith-based groups like missions, church pantries, mosques and synagogues
  • soup kitchens
  • group homes
  • homeless shelters
  • day care programs
  • senior care centers
  • emergency canteens
  • meal services to the housebound
  • job placement facilities

Member organizations don't pay for food, but they're usually responsible for some sort of processing or maintenance fee that constitutes a small portion of the cost of the goods they receive. The maintenance fee amount will vary from region to region and from one food bank to another.

Now let's take a look at some ways you can help a food bank near you.


What Can You Do to Help Your Local Food Bank?

Food banks and food-related charities need money, food and manpower to operate. You can help by donating money to a national food bank like Feeding America, or give to a regional food bank in your area. Supporting businesses that donate to food banks or conduct regular food drives is another way you can show your support for food related charities.

Around the holidays, news clips of concerned citizens manning the food lines at local soup kitchens or area missions are popular fare, but the fact is that food banks need help all year long. They also need talented people who can run a forklift, keep the accounting books, build a Web site or perform strategic planning tasks. If you have a special skill and are willing to volunteer, your unique contribution will help your local or regional free-food distribution system work more effectively.


If you can't volunteer your time and expertise, you can still do important work to help a local food bank. If there are no ongoing food drives where you work, worship or play, consider starting one. Some food banks make it easy to institute a food drive program by providing drop-off bins and even project kits with great ideas to get you started.

If you can't volunteer and don't have the time to start a food drive, you can still do lots of things to help your food bank help others:

  • Discuss hunger with your family so they can help increase awareness among their circle of friends.
  • Host a party, and after you enjoy a hearty, home-cooked meal, take up a collection to help hungry families.
  • Assemble a box of emergency food for your family and keep it in a safe, dry location. While you're at it, make up a box to donate, too.
  • Try to feed each member of your family on $4.45 a day. That's how much money the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamp program) offers the needy for a day's worth of food. Discuss the results with your friends and co-workers. Start a blog of your experience to spread the word about hunger in America.

Donate food to your local food bank, too. These items are always in demand:

  • shelf-stable milk
  • paper products
  • cleaning supplies
  • juice boxes
  • peanut butter
  • canned vegetables, fruit and tuna
  • canned stew, soups (especially those containing meat)
  • boxed cereal
  • oatmeal
  • beans
  • baby food
  • infant formula


Lots More Information

Related Articles
More Great Links


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