How to Find Free Food for a Food Pantry

How to Find Free Food for a Food Pantry
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Food pantries are quiet little closets across the globe that are emptied by needy families and filled up again to supply the next family in need. Some food pantries can be found in churches/synagogues/temples/mosques, schools, community centers, Masonic lodges, homeless shelters, American Legions, Boy Scout troop locations and more. It's best if you can get most of the food donated. If you are considering launching a food-pantry ministry or help center, consider recruiting assistance from grocery stores, private donors, schools, houses of worship, and other community groups for assistance in various ways.

Food-Raising Events

Event ideas are limitless.
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Host a food-raising event. This is an especially good way to kick off a new pantry operation. Events can be fun and bring in large quantities of free food. The charge for attending the event may be a can or bag (or more) of food instead of money. These events may be concerts, plays or indoor carnivals. For example, the Central Wisconsin Community Action Council Food Pantry operates a Santa visit and Holiday Train operation. They also sell raffle tickets for various prizes to raise money to purchase food for the food pantry.

Contact a local city Park Department, mall, school or restaurant, depending upon what type of event you plan. Ask them if they can also assist you with people to help at the gate or tables. Most city departments will be happy to assist food pantries in finding volunteers.

Call family, friends, neighbors and local low-income-assistance offices for volunteers. Many people enjoy assisting food-pantry projects with work such as putting up posters or flyers in strategic areas. When contacting people to volunteer, it is acceptable to ask them if they would like to donate food if they can't work the event. Schedule a convenient time with them to have the food picked up.

Arrange for someone to pick up the donated food from those phone calls. Take a calendar with you and an information form or index card. While there, ask them if they would like to commit to a monthly donation. If they say yes, schedule it while you are there and place it on the calendar. Allowing the volunteer to see you placing it on the calendar will help confirm that it is a solid commitment. Thank every volunteer for every commitment.

Stores & Markets

Fresh fruits need to be handed out quickly before they spoil.
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Call local grocery stores and schedule appointments with the managers.

Attend the appointments with calendar in hand and a list of food needs prepared. Ask the store manager for donations on a regular schedule as appropriate to the type of food or the store's routines for refreshing stock. Discuss food items that are almost out of date, such as boxed noodles, where the date on the box is mainly for the store's shelf selling life, not the safe edibility of the food. Discussing different foods with different managers will offer you a variety and will allow you to have foods your clients can rely on.

Visit local farmers' markets or orchards, especially late in the selling day. These operations often have plenty of fruits and vegetables left over or slightly bruised that they would rather give to food pantries than allow to spoil.

List donors' names prominently in your publicity and at your site, and provide a written receipt, on your letterhead, that your donors can use for tax purposes. Provide the receipt when you receive the commitment to donate, and allow them to fill in the value of each donation.

Build a continuing relationship with the grocers and farmers by giving them free publicity as donors and sending them thank-you notes or photos of children being given food from their store from time to time. Mutually satisfying relationships will help keep your food pantry open.

Community Groups

Teen groups enjoy helping their communities.
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Contact school groups in your community for donations. Consider linking some advertising for your food pantry into the donation. For example, you may want to consider contacting the Seniors at a local high school for donations and for a follow-up thank you ad in the back of their yearbook.

Call Girl Scout troops or church groups for donations, such as the boy's Royal Rangers program or the girl's Missionette organization within the Assemblies of God churches. The Dedham Food Pantry in Dedham, Massachusetts received 20 cases of free Girl Scout cookies in 2010 from Dedham Girl Scout Troop #74589.

Inform all donors that any food donated needs to be in proper sealed containers and safe for consumption. Canned food and boxed dry food are positive suggestions. A food pantry is required to follow local, state and federal laws concerning food safety. It is your job to ensure that foods are stored properly and remain uncontaminated.


  • It is important to thank your donors publicly on posters or in inexpensive newspaper advertisements. This helps you to receive more donations, and gives them free publicity. It also helps them feel appreciated while prompting them to donate more consistently.

    Consider visiting for various ways to receive free grocery coupons from online sources.


  • Be sure your operation or sponsoring organization has secure status as a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization before promising tax deductions to donors. Clearly state your tax-exempt status on your receipt form.

    The largest donors may prefer to send their goods to a local Food Bank, since tax code 170(e)(3) gives them a bigger tax break than giving directly to a 501(c)3. You can buy goods at low cost from your Food Bank.