#Giving Tuesday

donateToday is #Giving Tuesday, a global day of giving, intended to kickoff the end of year charitable giving season.  This movement was started in 2012 by a group at the Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.  The creators hoped to continue the theme of giving, spurred by Black Friday and Cyber Monday, by designating a day to focus on charitable giving.  I wrote a blog post about #Giving Tuesday last year as well, but because I had completely missed the day, the focus of that post was to urge readers to not relegate giving to just one day and to give throughout the year.  I still believe in giving throughout the year, and so while I am encouraging you to give to a charitable organization today, I want to highlight ways you can give to your local food pantry throughout the year.

Giving to food banks and pantries often spikes in November and December as people are moved to be more charitable during the holidays of Thanksgiving and Christmas.  As I have been grocery shopping over the past two weeks I have started collecting items for my reverse Advent box, and later in December I will purchase some clothing and toy items to donate to our parent organization as they assist canned veggies drawingfamilies in need at Christmas.  But food pantries need donations throughout the year and are always happy to receive staples, like canned fruit and vegetables, pasta, soups, peanut butter and jelly, and tuna to name a few items.  One consideration to keep in mind when collecting these staple items is to try to find the healthiest versions possible, as people receiving food from a food pantry want, and often need, to eat healthy too.  For instance, when purchasing canned vegetables, soups, and peanut butter look for low and no sodium options.  Try to buy canned fruit packed in light syrup or its own juices and for canned meat, like tuna or chicken, choose those packed in water rather than oil.  Finally, look for hot and cold cereals which are 100% whole grain or at least list a whole grain as the first ingredient.

In addition to dried goods, other food and non-food items may be welcome donations at your local food pantry.  With the same focus on providing healthy food options, many food banks and pantries will accept excess produce from gardens, so the next time you find yourself uncertain as to what you are going to do with 25 pounds of zucchini, consider donating some to your local food pantry.  Additionally, shotgun season for deer just opened here indeer Pennsylvania and through the statewide program Hunters Sharing the Harvest, PA hunters are able to donate whole deer, which will be processed and distributed to food banks, who in turn, will deliver the venison to food pantries, soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other hunger relief centers.  Finally, donations of non-food items, like diapers, personal care items and cleaning supplies are often greatly appreciated at many food pantries.

The items I have mentioned in this post are items that will be of need at most food pantries.  I urge you, however, to contact the food pantry to which you want to make a donation, particularly if the pantry is a small one.  The staff may be able to guide you to items which are most in need or clarify their policy on what they will accept and what they might be unable to handle.  Another reason to contact your local food pantry prior to giving is that maybe they have a need about which you were unaware, like an ongoing capital campaign to expand their space or purchase a large appliance like a freezer.  In such a situation the best donation you could make would be a cash donation.  Based on my nearly 3 years of volunteering in a food pantry, there is always a need, and we are always grateful when we receive donations.  Without them we would not be nearly as successful as we are at helping all those we do!

thank you veggies

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A Giving Advent Calendar

After taking most of this year off from writing so that I could run for school board, I’m back!  The election was last Tuesday, and I am happy to say I was successful in my run and have been elected to the school board for a 4 year term.  I was surprised at how much I enjoyed campaigning for school board, and I now know many more people from my community than I did when I started my campaign.  I was, however, equally surprised at how much I missed writing this blog.  I am so glad to be back and eager to dive into reading all the articles I have saved over the past few months!

My shift in focus back to food insecurity coincides with the run up to the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons.reindeer advent  Being involved in a food pantry during the holiday season results in a seesawing of emotions for me.  I have more than once found myself leaving a volunteer shift in low spirits over the holiday season.  Hearing the stories of individuals and families who find themselves in such heartbreaking and often desperate situations is extra difficult when the balance of your life is filled with thoughts of and plans for the gastronomic bounty that is Thanksgiving and the excitement of giving and receiving that comes with Christmas.  The juxtaposition of these two very different life situations can leave me filled with a combination of anger, sadness and helplessness.

Luckily, working in the food pantry during the holiday season also brings examples of generosity, gratitude and joy.  Donations to food banks and pantries tend to increase during the holiday season, as individuals reflect on the abundance in their lives.  Churches, schools, social groups and businesses often sponsor food drives or adopt-a-family programs for the holidays.  Currently, I know my sons’ high school student council is sponsoring a food drive to benefit our food pantry.  In addition to the generosity exhibited by the general population through their increased donations, my spirits are often uplifted by the expression of gratitude a grocery cart full of food can bring to the face of a mother who spends much of her waking hours wondering and worrying not about how santa adventshe will provide Christmas presents for her children, but how she will feed them dinner on Christmas Day.  And I can not begin to explain to you the look of excitement and joy I saw on the faces of several young children as they picked out the sweet treat we gave out last December.

As a result of experiencing this back and forth of emotions while volunteering at the food pantry during the holidays, I knew instantly when I saw the idea of a giving (or reverse) Advent calendar on Facebook that I wanted to write about it in my blog and encourage others to participate in this year’s holiday project by creating a giving Advent calendar.  Most people are familiar with an Advent calendar, where you do something each day, starting with December 1st, until Christmas Eve to count down the days to Christmas.  In our house our two Advent calendars involve hanging an ornament on a Christmas tree each day.  The idea behind a giving Advent calendar is that you add something every day from December 1st through Christmas Eve to a box to be donated.  So for the food pantry, one would put a food item, personal care item or cleaning product each day in a box ending on December 24th with 24 items to then be donated to a food pantry.

This year, in addition to counting down the days to Christmas with our Advent calendars, my family will be counting up to 24 items in a box.  I encourage you to do the same with your family.  What you put in the box is up to you.  You can diversify, putting in 24 different items or simplify by putting in 24 of the same item.  You could pick a theme, like items a family might need in a day or ask your children to pick some of their favorite non perishable foods or focus on items for the homeless.  The options are many.  Below I have included a list of some of the more useful items that can be included in your giving Advent calendar, and if you are local to me, I would be happy to pick up your giving Advent calendar after Christmas.

Non Perishable Food:  canned vegetables, canned fruit, soups, peanut butter, jelly, spaghetti noodles, spaghetti sauce, rice, dried beans, tuna, canned chicken, cereal, instant oatmeal, coffee, tea, hot chocolate, sweet treats

Personal Care Items:  bars of soap, toothpaste, dental floss, toothbrushes, shampoo, deodorant, toilet paper, tissues

Cleaning Products:  laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels

Baby products:  baby cereal, formula, baby food, diapers (especially larger sizes), baby wipes, baby shampoo, baby wash

Homeless Products:  single serving cans, items with pop tops, Spam, Vienna sausages, chili, packages of single serve cereal, granola bars, single serve juices, dehydrated soups, plastic utensils, can openers

 

 

Luxury Items

As I started to collect coffee, tea and hot chocolate mix for our food pantry’s Warm Their Hearts drive, my husband expressed concern about something I too had been wrestling with.  He pointed out that the items I had held food drives for were luxury items and that maybe those folks who had helped out might rather donate items that are more of a staple item, like canned vegetables or peanut butter.   I certainly saw his point and understood teahis concern.  The debate of what is an appropriate food item for someone who is requiring assistance with food, either through SNAP or from a food pantry, has been debated in American society many times.  After some more thought on my part and discussion with some people who had participated in both drives I am comfortable with the two items that have been chosen for our food drives, and I now understand that providing these items to our food pantry clients has been beneficial to both the recipients and the donors.

Most people have experienced hunger, if only for a little while, when our busy schedules force us to delay or even skip a meal, but very few of us have had to experience the psychological toll privation has on those who are food insecure.  Contemplating the absence in my life of the food items I chose for these recent food drives illustrates for me what that psychological toll would begin feel like if I suffered from food insecurity.  I know if I could not bake Christmas cookies I would experience a profound sadness, because I could not bake cookies with my sister for my family and friends.  Additionally, life without coffee is almost unimaginable to me.  I start my day with coffee and use it as a reward, a pick me up, a reason to take a break.  Plain and simple, coffee makes me happy.  Neither the holiday cookies nor the daily coffee are necessary for my daily sustenance, but without hot-chocolate-2them my mental outlook on life would be very different.  Consequently, receiving an unexpected treat, like a cookie mix or coffee, tea or hot chocolate might lift the spirits of those who struggle with food insecurity and must go without these unaffordable extras on a regular basis.

The recipients, however, are not the only ones who psychologically benefit from these food drives.  The donors do too.  The benefit to donors was not immediately evident to me.  I know that I experience a sense of pleasure at knowing I am brightening someone else’s day by helping them get food at the food pantry and by helping provide these treats, but I wasn’t sure that same sentiment was felt by everyone who was participating in the food drives.  A recent thank you letter from a reader and donor, as well as conversations with a couple of other donors has made me realize those who choose to participate in these food drives receive a positive psychological boost as well.  The feedback I received indicated they loved these ideas and were very happy to participate in donating items.  From these interactions I was also able to determine that these specific food drives had allowed the donors to also contemplate the psychological toll food insecurity might have on a person.  Perhaps most encouraging to me, however, is that each of these individuals has mentioned wanting to participate in future drives and/or has suggested other ways in which they could donate.

I would like to say that each action I take is part of some larger plan, but more often than not I am just making it up as I go along.  When some aha moment happens and gives me a black-coffeemoment of clarity or understanding, I try to translate that understanding or clarity to my readers who are following me on my journey.  Like the SNAP Challenge, these food drives have been a device to help illustrate more clearly what being food insecure is truly like.  I can go without all kinds of food for a day, or week to try and replicate food insecurity, but I probably never would have thought to stop drinking coffee.  It would never have occurred to me, until I heard someone who is really food insecure ask if we might possibly have some to give out.  I don’t know what the next food drive will be, but I do want my readers to know, that I will always take substitutions if you disagree with the item being collected.  As a matter of fact, I will take almost any unexpired food or personal care item you want to donate, any time you want to donate it.  It will always go to good use.

Christmas in July

harleyFor over 25 years on the Fourth of July weekend the local chapter of a motorcycle club pulls up outside the food pantry where I volunteer to deliver the results of their annual food drive.  This year was no exception.  On July 2nd three pickup trucks towing utility trailers loaded with food, diapers, personal hygiene products, cleaning products and paper products arrived, bringing the food pantry Christmas in July!  During the month of June, members from Chester County A.B.A.T.E. set up outside local grocery stores on the weekends to collect donations for this drive.  Additionally, club members take any financial donations they receive and purchase items the pantry IMG_0815needs, but are not usually donated in a food drive, like the personal hygiene products, diapers and paper products.

This considerably large donation comes at a great time of year.  Food banks and pantries, ours included, often get most of their large donations in the late fall, right before the holidays, so by the summer donated supplies are running low.  Additionally, summer is often a time when food pantry usage goes up, as children, who may normally receive two meals a day at school during the school year, are home for the summer.  This sizeable donation helps in another way, by allowing us to bring new items into the pantry and fill in the gaps in our staple items, like pasta, beans, rice and vegetables.  I can see the difference this donation has made already.  Our shelves are completely stocked, including personal care items, diapers, and items for the homeless.

IMG_0816Operating a food bank, cupboard or pantry would be impossible without the generosity of those who donate.  We are fortunate to get individual and organization donations regularly throughout the year.  As a matter of fact, as I was leaving the pantry on Tuesday I held the door open for a lady bringing in a box of donated food.   Additionally, several churches drop off regular donations from parishioners.  Sizeable donations like this one, however, coming at a time of year when most people are focused on things other than food drives, help us better serve those in need in our community.  So to the members of this motorcycle club I say a heartfelt thank you and safe ride!

Oddities, End Dates and Some Dirt

The past couple of weeks both food pantries in which I volunteer have gotten large shipments of donated items from the county food bank.  These items are not TEFAP (Federal) or State supplied food.  They are strictly items donated by the general public to the county food bank through canned food drives or individual drop offs.  These sizeable shipments have been filled with many useful and needed items, like cereals, canned fruits and vegetables, and peanut butter.  They have also contained items for clients with health problems or special diets, like low sodium soups, vegetarian items or sugar and fat free items which are good for diabetics.  I have, however, made a couple disappointing observations that I wanted to share.

expiration dateFirst, most food items are now stamped with a sell by or use by date.  The majority of items are donated well before their expiration date, but at both pantries we have encountered items that were expired.  In several instances the items were several years out of date.  Additionally, we encountered severely dented or rusted cans.  Canned goods that were only a few months out of date or are only slightly dented are put on a table or shelf with an explanation as to why they are there, allowing clients to decide whether to take them or not.  Items that are well beyond their expiration date, heavily dented or rusted have to be thrown away.  My suggestion to people who contribute to a food bank or pantry is to look at the sell by date and the condition of the can.  This is especially important if the item is coming out of your pantry.  I know I have been surprised at how old some items are in my own pantry.  If the food item is either out of date or in questionable condition, please do not donate it.

As I mentioned, most of the items donated are useful and needed, but I have seen some very odd items as well.  Some of my favorites include a can of hearts of palm, Chinese Mabo Tofu Sauce and tamarind sauce.  All of these items may be quite tasty, but they are not something the average cook, particularly in rural Pennsylvania, is going to know what to do with.  Most foodMOST-NEEDED-FOOD-DONATIONS banks and pantries have a list of items they regularly distribute or for which they have a particular need.  I encourage anyone uncertain about what to donate to contact the local food bank or check their website to get that list of most needed items.  Some items that can always be used are canned fruits and vegetables, peanut butter, and unsweetened cereals.  Please do not think of the local food bank as a place to take unwanted items from your pantry.

 And now about the dirt.  No, the dirt has nothing to do with the donated food from the county food bank.  Today I got to play in the dirt a bit.  One of the food pantries where I volunteer has raised beds in which they grow vegetables to be distributed in the food pantry.  The broccoli broccoli seedlingsseedlings we planed today were supplied by the county food bank.  In addition to the broccoli we planted today, volunteers had already planted onions, radishes, cabbage, lettuce and carrots.  To augment the vegetables grown in the raised beds, some staff members of the food pantry will plant other vegetables at their homes to be harvested for the pantry.  I love this idea of the pantry growing their own produce and this pantry is fortunate to have the space to do so.  I am excited to think of all the fresh produce that will be available to food pantry clients later this summer.