Editorial: Food donations are more than cleaning out the cabinets

Making it easier on the thousands of local volunteers who sort and distribute the food, not to mention the beneficiaries who eat those donation, doesn’t have to be hard.|

You could smell it before you saw it. The pungent garlic and the acidic tomatoes permeated the room full of food donations. But where was it? Barrel by barrel, two volunteers walked down the long warehouse, guided by their noses.

Finally, the stench revealed itself: a half gallon jar of homemade spaghetti sauce with an unsecured lid had been haphazardly thrown in with other items. It inevitably tipped over in the Redwood Empire Food Bank donation bin, spilling its messy contents all over boxes of pasta and cereal.

It’s a story to which nearly every food donation nonprofit can relate.

The road to feeding our hungry is paved with good intentions, but as we enter the hustle bustle of the holiday giving season, let’s also consider execution. Making it easier on the thousands of local volunteers who sort and distribute the food, not to mention the beneficiaries who eat those donation, doesn’t have to be hard.

First, make sure the food is usable to a wide range of people. Have a jar of pickled herring from that gift basket someone got you in Sweden? It might be best to find someone who likes that kind of thing, rather than donating it and asking others to find that special someone who enjoys a tart fish.

The same can be said for expired items. Yes, the accuracy of food “sell by” and “best by” dates can be debated. Then there’s the wild story of the Bertrand, a steamboat that sunk in the Missouri River in 1865. More than 100 years later, in 1974, scientists with the National Food Processors Association cracked open cans of plums and oysters that has been sitting at the bottom of the river for all those decades, and while the color and taste was mildly affected, testing showed the food was safe to eat.

As Americans, we should do all that we can to lessen the $218 billion in food waste expected in 2022. But when it comes to donations, it’s best not to make busy volunteers or families in need figure out if food is safe to eat. Some food banks do except food past their “best by” dates, and many, like the Redwood Empire Food Bank, do not. When it doubt, give them a call to confirm.

While it’s tempting to look at food donation season as a time to clean out the cabinets, those who really want to help will give the most-requested items, like rice, canned beans, peanut butter, canned fish, canned fruits and vegetables, pasta and canned soup. It’s safe to assume those receiving the donations are looking for familiar ingredients they can’t easily afford, not a random assortment of flavored vinegars and that unopened tapenade that your cousin brought to that last family dinner.

It’s always important to note that although food donations spike in November and December with the holidays, hunger isn’t seasonal. Groups like Friends in Sonoma Helping, Sonoma Overnight Support, Food for All / Comida para Todos and the Redwood Empire Food Bank all accept donations year round. Let’s do our best to make those donations easy to distribute and consume.

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