“It’s important to remember that donated food is most helpful if it is both safe and high quality,” says Barbara Ingham, food science specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension.
Make sure to check the dates on packages of foods that you donate, advises Ingham. Many packaged items are marked with dates that indicate freshness. Some examples include:
--Quality or pack dates often designated on packages by the words Better if used by...” and a date. Look for these dates on packaged mixes, cold cereals, peanut butter, and increasingly, on canned items like fruits and vegetables. These dates mean that after the quality date, the food will begin to lose its flavor and may even develop an off flavor. Quality dates are an estimate of how long foods will remain at their peak quality. Donate only foods that are well within the quality dates marked on the package.
--Expiration dates, such as Expires 2/15/13 or Do not use after 7/9/13. Look for these dates on vitamins, yeast, baking powder and cake mixes. Do not donate foods that are past their expiration date.
--Pull dates. Example: Sell by May 16.” Look for these dates on perishable, refrigerated foods such as milk, yogurt, cottage cheese, cream, eggs, lunch meat and packaged salad mixes.
Perishable foods, with the exception of garden produce, are usually not included in a food drive. If they are, choose foods that are well within the pull date for best quality.
Besides looking for a date, be sure to check the integrity of the package. To ensure that the food has not been contaminated, donate only foods from unopened packages. Avoid foods with packaging that shows signs of leakage or damage. Ingham urges consumers not to donate canned items that have broken seams or large dents.
Are home-canned foods, fresh eggs or produce safe to donate? Food pantries often welcome donations of fresh produce. However, home-canned foods, meat or eggs that have not been handled by licensed food processors should not be donated.
“If you have a question about a proposed donation, contact the food pantry. Staff there will be happy to discuss whether they can accept or store the donation that you have in mind,” suggests Ingham.
Amber Canto, poverty and food security specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Extension suggests avoiding sugary cereals, salty noodle mixes, and fruit-flavored beverages that might be easy to donate, but difficult for families to include in nutritious meals. Instead, Canto urges consumers to donate foods that have a stable shelf life, are full of nutrients and easy to prepare. Good examples of foods to consider are:
--Whole grain, low-sugar cereals such as plain instant oatmeal, whole grain Os, and bran flakes.
--Whole grain or enriched pasta and instant rice—either brown or enriched. Boxed noodle and rice dishes can be an easy starting point for a one-dish meal.
--Whole grain crackers (especially reduced-sodium) and popcorn.
--Canned vegetables, especially those without added salt.
--Fruits canned in juice, unsweetened applesauce, 100-percent fruit juice and dried fruit such as raisins or craisins.
--Spaghetti sauce, salsa and canned beans, including baked beans.
--Canned meats. Food pantries tend to receive a lot of canned salmon or tuna, so consider other meats such as canned chicken, ham or beef. Do not donate meat canned at home.
--Peanuts and peanut butter.
--Reduced-sodium broth and soups.
--Low-fat salad dressings or spreads, and condiments such as ketchup or mustard.
--Baby food is a welcome donation. Just be sure to donate well within the date marked on the containers.
Consider donating cash to food pantries. “Pantries can often get more for their dollars, address shortages and needs and focus on high quality products with some extra financial assistance,” says Canto. “Cash donations help food pantry volunteers offer the widest possible array of products to the individuals that they serve.”
Canto notes that pantries are designed to serve only as emergency food stock--not as a continuous source of food--and need donations throughout the year. “Pantries are helping those in need during the holidays, and everyday,” she says.
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