Advice from the experts: Food drives: How your local community can address hunger — and be better prepared for emergencies

Q&A with Molly McGlinchy, food resources coordinator for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C.

About one in six people in the United States struggles with hunger, and issues related to hunger affect people in every community. In the fight to stamp out hunger, food banks play a key role by securing billions of pounds of food each year and distributing it to millions of people in need. You can help fight hunger in your local community by holding a food drive in your neighborhood, office, place of worship or school. Helping your local food bank stock up can also help your community be better prepared for emergencies, as demand on food banks often grows during a disaster or crisis.

But before you hang the first poster or print fliers, you should first reach out to your local food bank for guidance. Food banks’ needs and guidelines vary, says Molly McGlinchy, food resources coordinator for the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C. McGlinchy recently shared some tips with APHA’s Get Ready campaign on how local communities can organize successful food drives.

We hear a lot about the importance of food drives. Why exactly are food drives important?

We receive about a million pounds of food through food drives each year at the Capital Area Food Bank. The food that we receive is the food that we need the most, so we are looking at healthy, nutritious and cans in cartnonperishable foods. Food drives are really important — they help us provide food for our community members and help us provide the most nutritious and balanced food for them as well.

How do food banks tie in to disaster preparedness?
When disasters strike, a lot of food banks across the country are able to help in any way that they can. When Hurricane Katrina hit, food banks across the U.S. provided food to help out in the time of need. At the time, a lot of bottled water was in need, and food that was available and ready that didn’t need a lot of preparation…The food banks in a particular area where a disaster happens are generally the ones that are spread the most thin.

When is the best time to hold a food drive? Food is needed year-round, but are there particular seasons when supplies are especially low?

We do tend to see a decline in donations during the summer months. A lot of people go on vacation — they’re not around or they have other obligations…Issues like hunger and poverty come up often during the holiday months, so we may have an increase of donations during those holiday months — it is a time to target folks and encourage them to make donations. We’ll see a decline in donations during the summer, so it may be a good time to hold a food drive then, but at the same time folks may have a more successful food drive during the holiday months when they can get more participation.

Can you share a few tips for organizing a food drive?
We have a food drive kit that’s available on our website: www.capitalareafoodbank.org. It’s a great resource that has some tips to get started. It has our most-wanted list, and that’s generally a good first step in getting started with a food drive.

Do you recommend having your food drive last for one week? One month? What’s your suggestion?

I generally think food drives should last anywhere from about a week to three weeks. You want to give everyone a chance to participate. We want to give them ample time to remember to bring their donations in, but at the same time we don’t want them to lose interest. So I would say a minimum of a week and a maximum of a month. Generally though, for your specific area where you’re holding a food drive, you’ll generally know when the best time will be and you’ll know who’s participating and you’ll know how long they’ll want to participate for.

Do you see schools, communities and churches pitching in? Or are these generally organized through the workplace? cans and boxes

We see all of those that you listed. We have places of worship. We have businesses, workplaces, schools — all different communities coming together to provide food for (people in need).

What are the most common mistakes people make when they hold food drives?

It’s hard to say that someone makes a mistake because, really, any donation can help us. Even one pound of food, which is generally about a can, will allow us to provide about a meal for our community members. So it’s hard to say that anyone would ever make a mistake, but I find that if there’s not enough promotion or if somebody doesn’t take the extra time to communicate and publicize their food drive, then they may not be as successful. So I think the big key is just making sure that you spread the word. Let everybody know that you’re holding a food drive and get as many people to participate as possible.

Can you share some good ways to promote your food drive?
One of the newer forms of publicizing would be social media. Tweeting or Facebook or any of those types of resources to send the message out that you’re holding a food drive, and letting everybody know what you’re collecting and when and where you’ll be, are always really good resources. You can also send out fliers or post posters around your office or your school or wherever your food drive may be. Another way is sending out e-mails — just making sure to remind everybody where the collection point may be and also how long your food drive will be so they have ample time to get that donation in.

Do you see a lot of people holding contests tied to their food drives?
A lot, yes. It’s always a great way to get people to participate. It’s kind of a fun, interesting way and a lot of people really get into the spirit, which is neat. So we do see a lot of contests.

What are the best kinds of foods to collect in a food drive?
We can take any nonperishable foods, so any nonperishable food is really helpful. Some specific foods that we’re always in need of and always looking for would probably be some protein items such as peanut butter, canned tuna and canned chicken and any sort of cold or warm cereal. We are also looking for canned fruits and veggies, or whole grains and canned soup. We are striving at this point to try to provide the most beans, low sodiumnutritious food possible. So generally, we’re looking for low-sodium items, whole grains or foods with low sugar.

Is there a particular food you don’t want and you would rather people not donate?
We are able to use any nonperishable food. There is not a particular item that we try to stay away from, but if you are wondering what kind of food to provide, I would always suggest any type of food that you would provide for your own family. These are community members, so we want to be able to provide food that we would also eat ourselves.

What about nonfood items?
We are always in need of hygiene items. We are always on the lookout for shampoos, soaps, toothbrushes, toothpaste. We are also in need of items for homes, like laundry detergent, dishwasher soap — those kinds of items.

How do you find a food bank in your community?
The best way to find your local food bank would be to access the Feeding America website. You can find them at feedingamerica.org. All you need to do is enter your ZIP code and they will find your local food bank and provide a contact. They can also provide the address and the website for that food bank.

So you’ve had your food drive and now you have to designate somebody to transport what you collected to the food bank. Do you have any suggestions on how to do that?
We always ask that anybody that’s able to bring the food directly to the food bank, to bring it in a car or a truck. You could ask a neighbor for help. Usually there is staff available to help out with the unloading of the donations.

— Interview conducted, edited and condensed October 2010 by Teddi Dineley Johnson, The Nation’s Health, APHA. Photos by Michele Late, APHA. Posted Oct. 28, 2010

Food Drive Toolkit
For more ideas on food drives, download the Get Ready Food Drive Toolkit (PDF)

Podcast
Listen to this interview as a podcast.