Skip to main content

Tips for Visiting a Food Pantry

Written by Rachel Lindvall, former SDSU Extension Family & Community Health Associate.

Sometime in your life, you or someone you know might find yourself looking to supplement the food supply that you have access to. This can be brought about by changes in your family, your employment status, unusually high bills or any number of unforeseen circumstances. Friends might suggest that you visit a food pantry. One thing to note is that, in this day and age, this is not unusual. Although statistics differ as to the exact numbers of people that use food pantries and soup kitchens to help solve their family’s food shortages, it is certain that the numbers are high. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in 2017, over 12% or 1 in 8 households in this country had difficulty at some time during the year in providing enough food for all family members. We will probably learn that these numbers rose in 2018 and early 2019. If you are heading to your local food pantry for the first time, it can be a little confusing. Here are some tips for going to a food pantrythat can help you know what to look for and help you stretch the food you receive there.

Food Pantry Tips

Find out about all the food pantries and kitchens available to you. 

You can find out where the food pantries are with the listing and search tool at Feeding America. Different food banks get different funding, and some are larger than others. Additionally, you may be able to get help several times a month by using different food pantries and kitchens. In South Dakota, many areas are served by Mobile Food Pantries. These traveling food pantries only come to your community at certain times during a month or season. If you live in a tribal area, calling your tribal or community representatives may help in searching for where to find these.

Use several food banks. 

Using more than one food bank (when available) is smart because you may be able to get something at one that you may not get at another. For instance, one may have a deal with a local gardener that gives them their extras. This may mean this food bank has more produce. There is nothing against the rules that says you cannot use more than one food bank to get more help. However, be aware that nearly every food bank has rules on how often you can go per month or week.

Show up early. 

This is very important. This means you will be first in line and have a chance to get the items that are sought after and in limited quantities such as fresh produce, dairy and frozen food. You don't usually need to show up hours ahead of time but coming at least an hour before (depending on the size of your food bank and community) is usually a good idea.

Remember all documentation. 

Many food pantries require documentation to prove who you are, and in some cases, where you live. This is not to invade your privacy, but to simply make sure people are not coming more than they are allowed or using fake names to do so. Call ahead of time to find out what documentation is needed. Usually, it's just your photo ID and a piece of mail that verifies your address.

Eligible for other programs?

Ask your Department of Social Services office if you are eligible for other assistance programs to supplement your household’s food supply. They can easily tell you if you can apply for WIC (Women and Infant Children), USDA Commodities or SNAP(Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. If your family is hungry, these temporary programs can fill important gaps in getting everybody fed.

Cleanliness and Safety.

Once inside the pantry or kitchen, take a look around. Is it clean and well organized? Do employees take appropriate safety precautions if they are handling food items directly? They should be wearing gloves and hair nets if they are touching food items. Has the floor been recently swept? Are canned items stored in a way that they can be rotated? If they are covered in a layer of dust, they may be too old to be usable! Are refrigerated and frozen foods stored in refrigerators and freezers? If cans are dented or bulging, don’t accept them. If meat has been defrosted and refrozen ask how it has been stored. If any food items, like cereal or crackers, have open packaging, you probably don’t want them. Just because you are getting the food for free does not mean that it is OK for the pantry or kitchen to be dirty or unsafe. Always put safety first!

Think about foods offered in terms of meals. 

If you are lucky and get a food pantry that offers a choice, you will get to pick your own foods out. This will allow you to think in terms of meals and fill in the gaps with your grocery budget. Plan to go the pantry before you go to the grocery store, rather than after. This way, you can piece together meals based on what you’ve already received. For instance, let's say you are given chicken thighs and a few potatoes. You could easily make this meal complete with vegetables and seasonings. For more information on including a balance of food groups in your pantry selections check out this chart.

Even if you are not able to pick your own foods, look through the box and see what can go together and fill in the gaps. This not only stretches your food budget, but it also keeps food items from going to waste that would normally not be able to be used because they don't go with anything.

Ask about extras.

If you have special needs for infants or special diets, the pantries may be able to assist you. Many times, they can help with diapers, baby formula, baby food, personal hygiene products, and even special diet items like gluten free or sugar free foods. Don't be afraid to ask!

Don't be afraid to take lots of bread. 

Most food pantries get day old bread and bakery products donated to them from area grocery stores. Sometimes this is plentiful enough that there is no limit. Bread can be frozen, and it will just go to waste if no one takes it!

Go on different days of the week. 

Depending on the food pantry, they may be open only one or two days a week or they may be open all seven days. When you have a choice, going midweek is often best as it is less crowded.

Be polite to workers. 

Nearly everyone at a food bank is a volunteer. Be polite to the workers there as they often deal with highly emotional situations. As in so many instances, kindness matters here.

Food Distribution Terminology

  • Food Banks acquire large donations of edible but unmarketable food from the food industry and distribute it to organizations that feed hungry people. They solicit, store and distribute large donations of food. Food banks distribute the donations they receive to a large number of member agencies, such as food pantries, soup kitchens, meal programs, drug treatment centers, and senior care centers.
  • Food Pantries provide three-day food packages to families that have a place to live, but not enough food. These packages are designed to provide nutritionally balanced meals.
  • Soup kitchens serve individuals in need of a hot meal, the only meal of the day for many of them. Most soup kitchens serve a full, balanced meal, and some prepare and deliver meals to the homebound as well.

View Shelf-Stable Foods Save Money and Help Families Stay Prepared more information on using canned and shelf stable foods.