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10 donations food banks need most

MSN Money

Cleaning out your cupboard for a food drive? Good. When the economy goes down, the number of people seeking help from the nation's food banks goes up.

In the past year, Feeding America, the nation's leading food bank network, has seen an average increase of 15% to 20% in the number of people seeking help at its 200-plus food banks. Atlanta food banks, for example, distributed 41% more food in October than they did in October 2007.

"This is a very critical time of year for us," says Amy Hudson of the Atlanta Community Food Bank in an e-mail. "Between now and Dec. 31, we need to raise $1.1 million just to keep pace with last year's donations."

Forget about contributing that can of water chestnuts you bought three years ago and never found a use for. Make your donations count.

"I always tell people, 'Think about what you like to eat,'" says Marguerite Nowak of the San Francisco Food Bank.

So what, specifically, do food banks need this year? Here's a list, although your local food banks might have specific needs, so check with them.

No. 1: Cash, plain and simple
"Consider this," Ross Fraser of Feeding America wrote in an e-mail. "If you buy a can of tuna fish and donate it to a food bank, it will cost you a dollar and some change." However, a $1 donation to Feeding America provides "about 20 pounds of food and grocery products to someone at risk of hunger."

Other food banks rate their return on your dollar at anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds of food. They do it by buying in bulk, using volunteer labor and working with food brokers who notify them of deep discounts.

If not cash, then what?

Though cash donations take care of bulk-food needs and necessities such as truck maintenance, food donations also play an important role. Food drives can provide more-healthful and higher-quality foods than bulk buys, and provide a greater diversity of foods.

"(Food drives) help us get different food, culturally appropriate food," Nowak says. Those donations -- such as pinto beans, corn flour, jalapenos as well as lentils and rice -- can be a big factor in serving the nation's increasingly diverse population, some of which isn't familiar with traditional American staples. In addition, some food banks, such as Feed the Poor in Salt Lake City, are trying to supply organic foods whenever possible.

Most importantly, food drives provide a direct connection between donors and people who are hungry. Here are the top foods needed by food banks this year:

Proteins. Canned meats such as tuna, chicken or fish are high in protein and low in saturated fat. Peanut butter is rich in protein and high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated oils, the "good fats." These are among the most expensive foods -- too expensive for food banks to buy large quantities.

Soups and stews. They are filling, particularly the "chunky" soups, and contain liquid for hydration. In addition, soups can be filled with protein and vegetables.

Rice and pasta. "They're really staples," Nowak says. In addition, grain-based foods, such as pasta, are a good source of fiber and complex carbohydrates.

Cereal, including oatmeal. Breakfast cereals can be an additional source of protein, and most cereals today include a variety of vitamins and minerals.

Canned vegetables, including tomatoes and tomato sauce. Studies indicate that canned vegetables have about the same nutritional value as fresh vegetables.

Canned or dried beans and peas. A staple of diets as early as 6700 B.C., beans are a low-fat source of protein and fiber.

Canned fruits. Only a small amount of vitamin C is lost in the canning process, making these a healthy choice.

Fruit juice (canned, plastic or boxed). Make sure it's 100% juice.

Prepared box mixes such as macaroni and cheese or Hamburger Helper.

Shelf-stable milk. This includes dehydrated milk, canned evaporated milk and instant breakfasts.

What food banks don't need
Food bank officials are loath to say no to any donations, but let common sense prevail.

"As far as least helpful donations, out-of-date and glass items are least desirable," says Maryann Brunner of the Oregon Food Bank.

Other problematic items:

Perishables. The items could go bad before they're given to a client.

Homemade foods. That plate of homemade cookies is a nice thought, but there's no way for the food bank folks to know the contents or the date they were made.

Rusty or unlabeled cans. Would you feed your family out of rusty or unidentifiable cans?

Noncommercial canned items. Again, the food bank has no way of determining quality.

Baby food. Some food banks will accept canned or dry baby food and formula, but small glass containers are not accepted. Check with your local food bank.

Alcoholic beverages or soda.

Open packages. Do we need to explain this one? Give them the good stuff.


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