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What to consider when planning food donations this year

U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Benjamin W. Stratton

The holiday season is the time many Inland Northwesterners think about giving. Bell ringers and toy drives are physical reminders of need. But they’re also seasonal, which means people tend to give a lot during the closing months of the calendar year. The same is true for food banks.

Second Harvest Inland Northwest, which serves as a “food bank for food banks,” gets year-round donations from grocery stores, food drives and farmers. But autumn and early winter are the heaviest times of year for donations from area residents, according to Second Harvest Community Partnerships Director Eric Williams. He says the group accepts many kinds of food, but not everything in your pantry is an ideal candidate for donation.

“There’s a couple of basic rules,” Williams said. “Ask yourself: Is it something I would eat? If not, it probably shouldn’t be going to the food bank. And also we need to follow food safety guidelines. So most homemade foods, we cannot accept.”

The food bank’s most-needed items include canned fish and lean meats, healthy soups and stews, dry or canned beans, whole grain pasta and rice, cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter.

The group can also accept donations of fresh vegetables, but “frozen foods – not so much,” Williams said.

And donations aren’t limited to food alone.

“We’re often asked, which is better to give – food or money?” Williams said. “And during the pandemic, the answer is ‘yes.’ Those financial donations help us go out and buy…those things that help us provide meals for folks.”

Second Harvest operates warehouses in Pasco and Spokane that help keep in-demand foods in stock. Nevertheless, this year’s supply and delivery problems, coupled with drought-driven agricultural issues, put some limits on the group’s ability to outfit 13,500 Thanksgiving dinner boxes at two drive-through events in Yakima and Spokane this week, Williams said.

“We had a devil of a time and could not get yams,” Williams said. “A lot of people like to have yams in their Thanksgiving dinner, and I’ll be darned, there was a yam shortage.”

This year, olives stood in for the missing yams. They have a very different flavor profile, but Williams says olives are nutritious, pack well in the boxes and are a good accompaniment to dinner.

Second Harvest is still dealing with greater demand propelled in part by job losses and other economic issues over the last two years. In 2019, Second Harvest distributed 28 million meals, Williams said. In 2020, that went up to nearly 45 million meals. Demand is expected to be high again this year.

“Food insecurity is a lagger. After the economy picks up and gets going well again, it’s several months before food security really catches up with that,” Williams said. “So there’s going to be a lot of people through the holidays who need [food aid].”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.