What Is A Food Bank – Learn About Gardening For Food Banks

What Is A Food Bank – Learn About Gardening For Food Banks

Avid gardeners may find themselves blessed with an abundance of produce each growing season. Sure, friends and family eagerly accept some of the excess, but even so, you may be left with more than you can eat yourself. This is where the food bank comes in.

You can donate or even specifically grow vegetables for a food bank. Millions of people in this country struggle to obtain adequate food. Gardening for food banks can fill that need. So how do food banks work and what types of food bank vegetables are most in demand? Read on to learn more.

What is a Food Bank?

A food bank is a nonprofit organization that stores, packages, collects, and distributes food and other items to those in need. Food banks are not to be mistaken for a food pantry or food closet.

A food bank is usually a larger organization than a food pantry or closet. Food banks do not actively distribute food to those in need. Instead, they provide food to the local food pantries, closets, or meal programs.

How Do Food Banks Work?

While there are other food banks, the largest is Feeding America, which runs 200 food banks that serve 60,000 food pantries nationwide. All food banks receive donated food stuff from manufacturers, retailers, growers, packers, and shippers of food, as well as through government agencies.

The donated food items are then distributed to food pantries or non-profit meal providers and either given or served free, or at a much reduced cost. One of the key elements of any food bank is that there are few, if any, paid employees. The work of a food bank is almost entirely done by volunteers.

Gardening for Food Banks

If you want to grow vegetables for a food bank, it’s a good idea to contact the food bank directly prior to planting. Each food bank will have different needs, so it is best to find out exactly what they are looking for. They may already have a solid donor of potatoes, for example, and aren’t interested in more. They may have a more pressing need for fresh greens instead.

Some cities have organizations already set up to help gardeners growing food bank vegetables. For instance, in Seattle, Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link connects people with donation sites by providing a spreadsheet with donation locations, donation times, and preferred veggies.

Some food banks won’t accept personally grown produce, but that doesn’t mean they all won’t. Keep checking around until you find a food bank that is open to personal garden donations.

Gardening for food banks might be a good way to use up that overload of tomatoes and may even be purposeful, like when a gardener dedicates part or all of the garden plot as a giving garden or specifically to fight hunger. Even if you don’t have your own garden space, you can volunteer at one of the over 700 local and national USDA People’s Gardens, most of which donate produce to food banks.


A food bank is a non-profit organization that collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities. Food banks act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller front line agencies and usually do not themselves give out food directly to people struggling with hunger.

Food banks in the U.S. are very diverse – from small operations serving people spread out across large rural areas to very large facilities that store and distribute many millions of pounds of food each year, and everything in between. A variety of factors impact how food banks work, from the size of the facility to the number of staff members. But, one thing all food banks have in common is that they rely on donors and volunteers to carry out their day-to-day operations. Watch this video to see how Feeding America works ›


Donating food to a food bank? Consider cash instead of canned goods

With 42 million people in the U.S. at risk of facing hunger due to the pandemic, donating your extra or purchased dry and canned goods through a food drive might seem like the best way to help your neighbors need. But, the best way to support your local food bank is actually through donating money.

Here are four reasons why donating money over food helps more families in need:

We can turn a donated dollar into more meals

Rather than paying retail prices, our network of food banks works with major manufacturers, retailers, and farmers to secure healthy food. This means that when you donate a dollar, you’re able to put more meals on the tables of families than if you donated food you'd purchased at the store.

Donations build healthier communities

Canned goods and dry food items like pasta and rice are a vital part of our food banks and pantries—but no one can live healthy lives on non-perishable items alone. Feeding people isn’t just about providing food, but about providing healthy food to all of our communities. We work to keep our network food banks and pantries stocked with more fresh fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and lean proteins. These perishable items can’t be directly donated through food drives but are vital for healthy lives.

We use funds to combat food waste

Over 72 billion pounds of perfectly good food is wasted every year. By working directly with farmers, we help ensure that healthy fruits and vegetables that don’t make it to the grocery store end up on the plates of families in need instead of a landfill. When you support our food rescue program, not only are you making a contribution to families in need but to creating a more sustainable world.

Not all food banks have the capacity for large food donations

Before beginning to collect food donations, you should always contact your local food bank. Collecting and receiving food drive donations may cause unforeseen problems and expenses for the food bank you want to help. Your local food bank can help you understand what types of food they can safely accept and when and what food is needed the most.

Still want to donate to your local food bank? Host a virtual food drive.

Your community can still work together to help families facing hunger by starting your own fundraiser for Feeding America. Whether you want to dedicate your birthday to ending hunger or have a creative fundraising idea all your own, your fundraiser will bring people together and help even more people in need.


2. Promote Recurring Giving

One of the best ways to ensure your food bank’s sustainability is running a monthly giving program.

When a donor sets up a recurring donation, they choose to give a predetermined amount of money on a regular basis. Many people like to give monthly (the most common form), bi-monthly, or yearly, but they can give as frequently as they’d like – the process will be automated. Instead of inspiring a donor to give multiple times, you only have to do it once, and then maintain the relationship.

An online donation system that offers recurring giving can have an enormous positive impact on the long-term financial sustainability of your food bank. It provides a steady stream of income, making it easier for you to plan your activities.

Recurring donors are also more engaged, give more, and keep giving for longer.

Place a prominent link to your recurring giving program in all your email newsletters, share social media posts, and on your website, highlighting recurring donors and the impact their donations are having.

In the image below, Greater Cleveland Food Bank is encouraging its website visitors to join their monthly giving program (and they have a donation matching too)! And The Mississauga Food Bank shares benefits of its branded monthly giving program.

Pro tip: Make sure donors can cancel their recurring subscription at any time, and that they are aware that they can


Missouri Food Pantries Help Clients Grow Their Own Produce

Bill McKelvey created Grow Well Missouri with a five-year grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to help create more access to produce — and the health benefits that come with growing it yourself. Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media hide caption

Bill McKelvey created Grow Well Missouri with a five-year grant from the Missouri Foundation for Health to help create more access to produce — and the health benefits that come with growing it yourself.

Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media

The Salt

For The Next Food Drive, Go For The Canned Tuna, Not The Saltines

The Salt

Tucson Food Bank Helps The Needy Grow Their Own Food

In the U.S., 1 in 6 people struggles with hunger. Food pantries across the country pass out food to help these people put meals on the table. But what if they could help teach the pantry visitors how to grow their own food, too?

Grow Well Missouri, a program that travels to food pantries around central Missouri, is one of several food-aid groups trying to do just that, passing out seeds and starter plants to low-income locals.

On a recent wet spring morning, the group set up in Columbia, Mo. Four volunteers for Grow Well Missouri worked under a blue popup tent outside of Central Pantry, repotting about 50 starter tomato plants into larger containers. They had a steady stream of visitors stopping by, curious about what's going on.

Volunteer Marie Paisley packaged a tomato plant, a trowel and literature on how to successfully grow the plant all into a tote bag. Then she passed it to food pantry customers with some helpful tips on how to care for the plant.

"When you get it home, you need to water it through thoroughly, 'til the water runs out the bottom of the container," she says.

Bill McKelvey created Grow Well Missouri, now in its second year, in part to provide better access to healthful food.

"It's really probably the highest-quality food you could get, right?" he says. "You've grown it yourself, you pick it and you eat it."

When people visit food pantries, they don't always find the most healthful selection — though many food banks are working to change that. And fresh produce can be really hard to come by for people who rely on food banks.

"You know, a lot of what obviously is donated because it keeps longer is stuff that's canned," says Livia Marques, a food and health program officer with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. "So having that access to produce through different means, I think, is really critical. Clearly, giving people the opportunity to grow it themselves is optimal."

McKelvey says the program also tries to deliver more than just nutritious food.

"I think gardening provides people with a sense of satisfaction and a sense of self-sufficiency, and that's regardless of your income," he says.

Out of the 158 program participants surveyed last year, nearly 90 percent actually planted gardens. And more than 90 percent of the gardeners say they shared their produce with friends and family. McKelvey says connecting people to their food also helps connect them to each other.

Kate Markie (left) and Debra Blakely, volunteers for Grow Well Missouri, pass out seeds to food pantry shoppers at Central Pantry in Columbia, Mo., in hopes of encouraging them to start their own gardens. Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media hide caption

Kate Markie (left) and Debra Blakely, volunteers for Grow Well Missouri, pass out seeds to food pantry shoppers at Central Pantry in Columbia, Mo., in hopes of encouraging them to start their own gardens.

Kristofor Husted/Harvest Public Media

Coresa Colony, who snagged a tomato plant in Columbia, says she shares the experience with her son. They enjoy growing tomatoes and eating them, and she says a starter plant from Grow Well Missouri will allow them to integrate more fruits into their diets.

McKelvey says more than half of the people who pick up plants or seeds from the group have some form of gardening experience. Many of those gardeners start with seeds, which clients can also pick up inside the pantry.

Just past the bread shelf and halfway to the cooler, there are hundreds of seed packets set on the table along with instructions and tips on how to grow them. Pantry shoppers pick up seeds from volunteers like Debra Blakely for everything from carrots and spinach to cantaloupe and watermelon.

"When I did this a few weeks ago, we offered flower seeds", Blakely says. "I saw their faces light up, because they had already been by to pick up their vegetable seeds, but then they say, 'Oh, today you have flower seeds!' So yeah, they stop by again."

McKelvey says that ultimately, the goal is to have people return and try new fruits and vegetables every year. That can help food pantries develop a more sustainable relationship with their clients, and can help clients continue to access fresh food and the health benefits that come with it.

"A lot of the work we're doing now is really going to help us build a model for how other groups can do this project," McKelvey says.

At the end of the year, he says, Grow Well Missouri will start hosting workshops and training sessions for other Midwest groups interested in initiating their own version of the project. As we've previously reported, other food bank projects along these lines include a community garden in a low-income neighborhood in Tucson, Ariz., where clients can grow their own produce and raise chickens and bees.

This story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a public radio reporting collaboration that focuses on agriculture and food production.


How Food Banks Work

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.

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.

According to the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans waste more than 96 billion pounds of food every year.

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.

Feeding America, the largest hunger relief charity in the United States with 200 food banks, estimates that a $1 donation can provide enough food to make seven meals (about 9 pounds of food).

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

Every year, Feeding America provides food to more than 37 million Americans, including nearly 14 million children. They maintain a database with state and local listings for food banks across the nation. To locate a food bank near you, all you have to do is enter your ZIP code: Food Bank Locator.


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