I have found myself at food banks many times in my adult life. Both when I was single and after I got married. When I would go, I felt shame and a whole lot of worry. I didn't want to be judged and I hoped there would be enough food for all of us that were waiting to get it. It takes a big old swallow of pride to do this.
The fact is, in 2014, according to this article in USA Today, 1 in 7 households relied on food banks and the numbers have risen since then. So, it really is my friends and neighbors that are there seeking help as well. This is also why it is also so important to donate to food banks. In any case, if you are heading to your local food bank for the first time, it can be scary. Here are some of my own personal Tips for Going to a Food Bank that can help you avoid hassles, snags, and help you stretch the food you are given.
Tips for Going to a Food Bank
Find out about all the food banks available to you. You can find out where the food banks 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 banks.
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. The biggest thing I learned about food banks is to show up early. This means you will be first in line and have a chance to get the stuff that is 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 banks 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. Don't worry about providing any financial information as I have never been asked to show proof. Call ahead of time to find out what documentation is needed. Usually, it's just your photo ID and a piece of mail.
Think about foods offered in terms of meals. If you are lucky and get a food bank that offers a “shopping experience”, 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. I used to go before I went to the grocery store, rather than after when I was already broke. That way, could piece together meals by what I got. For instance, let's say you are given chicken thighs and a few potatoes. You could easily make this meal complete with less than $2 and some frozen vegetables and seasonings. 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 from going to waste that would normally not be able to be used because they don't go with anything.
Ask about extras. There was many times when my daughter was an infant that I was running out of things she needed and the food bank was able to help me. If you have other needs, you would be surprised at what else they may be able to help with. 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. Other times, we got vouchers to use at the farmer's markets on occasion. Don't be afraid to ask!
Don't be afraid to take lots of bread. Most food banks get day old bread and bakery products donated to them from area grocery stores and they usually have so much. If there is no limit, don't be afraid to take as much as you want. Bread can be frozen after all, and it will just go to waste if no one takes it!
Go on different days of the week. Depending on the food bank, they may be open only one or two days a week or they may be open all seven days. I find that going midweek is best as it isn't approaching or just coming off of a weekend. I also have noticed that right before holidays, food banks can be very crowded. Try to avoid going then if you can help it. However, if it's around a major food-centered holiday like Christmas or Thanksgiving, you may get lucky and get holiday food in addition to your normal food box.
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 and I have found that kindness matters here.