How to Start a Free Food Program

How to Start a Free Food Program
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There is no shortage of people who need help with their daily necessities. Starting a food bank in your community is a great way to reach out to the homeless or those who just need help making ends meet. Churches and civic organizations have traditionally hosted free food programs, but it is possible for individuals acting on their own or as part of a group to start local programs to help feed those who need help. It does require a certain amount of planning, safety considerations and a staff that is committed to doing what is necessary to keep the project going.

Assemble a staff. Maintaining a food pantry is rewarding, but it's also hard work, and having the right personnel is essential. Make sure your workers are prepared to be active during the planning stages and can make time in their schedules to keep the pantry running. They should also be willing sign off on legal documents and have the business experience to keep accurate records. Starting a food bank usually requires initial funding, so enlisting the help of someone who knows grant writing or fundraising will help move things forward, also a positive attitude is important groundwork for any charitable undertaking.

Apply for 501(c)(3) status. Obtaining tax exempt status from the IRS in the form of a letter of determination will allow your organization to avoid paying federal corporation taxes and, possibly, local state and property taxes. It also makes you eligible to apply for grants and other private funding that are only offered to 501(c)(3) foundations. You will receive discounts on bulk mailing costs, along with the validation of being approved by the IRS. Access to provisions from most major food banks are only available to tax exempt groups. If you cannot afford the application process, it is possible to be sponsored by a larger organization.

Find a proper location. The ideal location should be accessible by public transportation and preferably in an area with low foot traffic. There should be adequate storage for refrigerated, frozen and dried foods and the food storage should be in compliance with local health department standards. This will qualify you for things like USDA monthly commodities, which includes frozen meats. Make sure the area is secure, this includes intrusion alarms and deadbolt locks on refrigerators and freezers. You cannot operate a food bank from a garage or home.

Start advertising. Once you're ready to start accepting clients, it's time to let the community know. Print fliers that include hunger statistics, personal stories and hours of operation and post them around the city or leave them with churches and civic groups. Contact your local media and let them know you're up and running. It's a good idea to post a sign outside with hours of operation and contact information, and always acknowledge food donors and financial contributors whenever possible.


  • Make sure your eligibility requirements are clear before you open. Contact larger food depositories, conduct local food drives or approach supermarkets for help keeping your shelves stocked.