As the pandemic drags on, its economics effects are putting an increasing number of Americans in a tough spot financially. Nearly one in four Americans have faced food insecurity this year, according to a study from Northwestern University—a 100 percent increase over 2019. Among families with children, the need for food assistance has tripled. If you’re thinking about visiting a food pantry but you’re not sure if you must qualify first or what’s involved in making or scheduling a visit, here’s what you can expect.
You might be familiar with the term “food bank,” but that’s not where individuals go to pick up food. A food bank is an organization that collects and maintains an inventory of food that is distributed to affiliated food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. If you’re looking to pick up some food, you’ll be going to a food pantry. This site has a list of food pantries in your state, searchable by ZIP code.
Food pantries provide free perishable and non-perishable items, including dairy products like milk and cheese, fruits, vegetables, bread, canned goods, and frozen meats. Depending on the setup, you might be able to shop in a supermarket type atmosphere in which you select items off a shelf and then go through a checkout. Another common approach is a table model, in which people line up for food available at separate tables based on different food groups. Other pantries have pre-loaded boxes that you can pick up. Whatever the means, typically you will get enough food to last a few days.
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It’s a myth that you have to be unemployed or on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to use a pantry. All sorts of people use them, young and old: families, single men and women, single parents, or seniors on a limited or fixed income. If you can’t make ends meet and need food, don’t be afraid to ask for what you need—there is no shame in using services meant to help you.
You can use the food pantry, often, too. Food assistance programs like food pantries are commonly a long-term strategy to supplement monthly food budget shortfalls. There are no rules against using more than one food bank, although individual food pantries will have rules on how often you can visit per month or per week.
Food pantries don’t just provide food. Other necessities might be available, like personal hygiene products, paper products, school supplies, diapers, baby formula, baby food, and even gluten free or sugar free foods. Volunteers can also help you sign up for SNAP, and there might even be literacy and job training classes on offer.
- Bring documentation that proves your identity and where you live.
- Show up early to avoid lines and ensure that you get a shot at limited-quantity items like fresh produce, dairy, and frozen food.
- Plan meals more effectively by going to the food pantry before you go to the grocery store to pick up additional needs, rather than after.
Thinking of donating to a food bank? Here’s what you need to know. Just remember to donate with cash if you can.