How Do Food Banks Actually Work?

We’ve all donated canned goods to a food drive, but what happens next? What does the food bank do with that food? Are food drives the best way to help a food bank fight hunger?

Every area of the country is served by a food bank, an organization built to collect surplus food and distribute it efficiently to people suffering from food insecurity. Here’s how they work and how you can help support their mission:

1. Donations drive food banks

We’ve been taught that canned food drives are the best donations to make to food banks, but that’s a myth. According to Dare to Care, a Louisville food bank and non-profit, over 95 percent of the food they receive (23 million pounds last year) comes from large donations by food businesses such as farms, groceries, and manufacturers. Monetary donations have a far greater impact and are more efficient than that can of cranberry sauce in the back of the cupboard. “Our overhead is less than 6 percent, and with every dollar donated to us we can bring in enough bulk donated food to provide three meals to a struggling family,” says Dare to Care Executive Director Brian Riendeau. “We can also be strategic and address specific dietary needs with money, making sure we’re providing our community healthy and nutritious foods,” says Riendeau. For example, in the past year, Dare to Care distributed over 7 million pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables, much of that coming from local farms.

If you’re going to give food, remember: “The food people eat is only as healthy as the food you provide,” explains Riendeau, adding “the best food to donate is peanut butter, canned tuna, and low sodium canned vegetables.”

2. Distribution comes next

After food is received, food banks sort and store it in a food safe environment. In Louisville, Dare to Care has 75,000 square feet of warehousing that includes large amounts of cold storage for perishable and frozen items. Additionally, Dare to Care has a fleet of more than a dozen refrigerated trucks. To get food to people who need it, food banks partner with local emergency kitchens, shelters and food pantries. For example, Dare to Care works with nearly 300 local nonprofit agencies serving every zip code of Kentuckiana.

“When people walk into our food bank, they’re often expecting to see a small pantry. It’s wonderful to see when visitors are amazed at our scale,” says Riendeau.

3. The community steps up to serve hungry neighbors

Behind all this work is the community. In Louisville, the community created Dare to Care Food Bank in response to a child’s death from hunger in 1969. That support continues today. Caring individuals provide financial support, volunteer at the food bank, or power the strong network of non-profit partners providing direct service to families. The model of service continues to evolve to meet changing community needs, but one thing remains constant. “Dare to Care is an expression of the compassion Louisvillians have for their neighbors in need,” says Riendeau.

If you’d like to contribute to Dare to Care, go here. You can also find more information about donations, volunteering and hunger in your community on their website.