8 Lessons Learned Volunteering At Food Bank

I’ve spent the last couple of afternoons working at The Food Bank of the Rockies in what is known as the Reclamation Area. This is the main area that donated food gets processed and sorted. I have learned a lot these past few days and wanted to pass it on in hopes that what I have seen helps you as you prepare to donate food to food bank.

can you donate expired food to food bankOn the 1st day we processed foods that were donated from area stores that had been pulled from their shelves for one reason or another. This food had been stored for some time and it all needed to be wiped down with bleach and sorted into 40 lb boxes by its type. I was shocked when I got there and was handed an apron and gloves to protect myself from the bleach. I couldn’t fathom why on earth we were wiping food with a chemical. Then I opened my first box. The bottom was full of rodent poop. OK, I can see why now. Cans, bags & boxes were all given a bleach wipe before heading to the sorting area.

Lesson 1: Don’t Donate Dented Cans OR Overly Expired Food

I literally, personally had to throw away over 3 huge trash cans, each weighing more than 350 lbs, of dented and expired cans. What broke my heart more was all of the expired baby food. What I did learn though was that you can donate expired canned goods up to 6 months from the date on the product. Just make sure it isn’t dented. A minor dent is OK but anything near a seam or a sharp dent will have to be tossed. Baby food that is even one day expired or in a glass container won’t make it through reclamation either. Neither will anything open. A box that has an inner lining still in tact-think a cereal box with the plastic bag inside- is OK but if the bag is open, its trashed.

Acceptable dates for expired food donated to Food Bank of the Rockies

Acceptable dates for expired food donated to Food Bank of the Rockies

Lesson 2: Companies Donate A LOT of Soda and Junk Food

soda donation at food bank of the rockies

Soda donation at food bank of the rockies. Photo Credit to Kia Ru

On a trip here last year with some bloggers we saw pallets and pallets of Sun Drop soda. All of us were taken aback. Apparently, that is par for the course. During my volunteer time I processed more 2 liters of various types of pop than I knew existed. Coming in a close second were Pop Tarts. I am certainly not a health food fanatic but I think everyone agrees that they wouldn’t want to open a food box full of only that to feed their family. I wouldn’t.

Lesson 3: Variety is Nice When You Donate Food to Food Bank

exciting items for food box

Real treasures found among the donated food

On Day 2 I packed boxes for individuals. These are 40 lbs boxes donated directly to people in need. Knowing these mostly go to households, volunteers try to pack a variety of foods in the boxes. It’s hard to make a variety out of ramen noodles and creamed corn! Volunteers would search through boxes and boxes to put together things that made sense-pasta with pasta sauce and so on. Finding canned proteins, like tuna and chicken was a nice surprise and something divided up carefully. When donating, be a little creative.


Lesson 4: Donate Your Teens

There are a lot of sweet, elderly, regular volunteers that sort food. Send in your teen to do some lifting. They need strong people to keep the conveyer belts filled and the trash cans empty. Kids have to be 14 to volunteer at Food Bank of the Rockies. They have to be 16 to be there unsupervised.

Lesson 5: Think About Going With Them

I am not going to lie, the first day when we pulled up and saw a large teen group escorted by 3 sheriffs I was a little worried. The next day the sheriffs were escorting a group of adults.  There is a large diversity among the people who volunteer. Obviously one of the reasons to volunteer with your kids is to expose them to different views of the world. We had a great experience working with all of the volunteers here.

Lesson 6: Know What You Are Comfortable With

Working at the Food Bank is physically demanding. While there are different areas and stations for people of different ability levels, there is no getting around some amount of lifting. They do need people to sit and re-tape boxes and such but those are few and far between. I’m sore. Really sore after 3 days.

Lesson 7: Companies Donate A Lot of Frozen Food

Donated Meat Re-Purposed for Zoo Animals

Donated Meat Re-Purposed for Zoo Animals

I was pretty discouraged Day 1 at all the packaged and processed food donated. But on Day 3 we processed a large amount of frozen food from places like Sams Club. I was pleased to see all the meat, cheese and some freezable dairy. What I was really bothered by is that the meat that is deemed not fit for human consumption is sent to the Zoo. I am guessing this is where the open grain bags go as well. In talking with people about this I guess it isn’t an issue for wild animals and the zoo knows how to process it safely for them. I don’t know though, I wouldn’t feed my dog meat I wouldn’t eat so this sat funny with me.


I have said this before and will say it again. The buying power of Feeding America banks is great. They know best what the community needs and with money they can buy dairy and produce which they are always short on. It’s this simple.

donate money to food banks

The Bottom Line:

All in all this was a great experience to do with my teen. I learned a lot about what actually happens to that food collected for food banks. After my time in reclamation, I would discourage people from running food drives that reward kids for the ‘most cans or weight’ donated. I personally feel while people have amazing intentions with these types of drives, it leads to people sending in the less expensive cans of food that are on sale-not always the most nutritional. I would encourage you instead to encourage the goal to be the most money raised. Of course, help as best you can. I know a lot of couponers that are very good at gathering tons of food for very little money. My advice is meant more for the average family looking at ways to make the most of their donations and time.
For more reading here is another great post on the subject: Can the Cans


  1. says

    Wow. This is very interesting! I saw your tweet earlier this week and said how I saw pop going out in every donated box- that really bothered me. I will absolutely be taking my boys with me down the road to volunteer with food donation organizations- and look forward to those days. Thanks for the info- and the visual representation of what you can buy vs. Feeding America with $10 is supurb.

  2. says

    It takes a lot of work to run one of these food banks – thanks for this post. I also like the big message of donate money if you can… even if it is just a little bit. The buying power with their partnerships is beyond what any of us can do.

  3. says

    I have a lot of love for food banks – my husband grew up very poor and had to utilize food banks all the time as a kid. He’s told me lots of stories about the things they had to eat! This is so informative – thanks for breaking it down for us, Barb!

  4. says

    Wow… this sounds great… I remember visiting there we were told a lot but once you volunteer there it is even clearer. Thanks for the tips. I think another reason i like to give cash- hoping the families get better items than soda 🙂

  5. says

    I love this list. Like I told you before, I’d love to get my daughter involved in this. She would love to help sort the foods into bags that make sense. Either way, I hope to be able to take these tips and move forward in some way towards volunteering with my kiddos.

  6. says

    Great post Barb! Love it! I tend to donate the items I get for free or nearly free with coupons – tends to be a lot of pasta, spaghetti sauce, chef boyardee, and then hygiene products. But I am definitely going to be adding a $10 bill after seeing how far it goes for the food bank! Thanks again for a great post.

  7. says

    Thank you for writing this. Years ago I helped a friend with a thrift store benefiting wildlife. We spent many many hours washing, ironing and cleaning things donated. We asked our donors to contribute “clean” and on many occasions they did, they just had to be asked. The is a good lesson. Today, I wash or dry clean anything I give to the thrift shop (benefiting our local resource center) and I am thanked profusely for the condition of my items. Last time when I delivered clothes, clean & in plastic from the dry cleaners…and was thanked, I asked the volunteers, what they usually receive? You don’t want to hear their reply.

  8. Belinda says

    I am so glad you wrote this..for I was shocked at what was donated to food banks myself..it’s
    Disgusting- the wheat pasta’s,low sodium ,no fat ,canned items that are not eaten -no one eats that stuff and wasted..I mean spaghetti o’s have more nutritional value.CHildren are starving in this country- The problem is generational -people

    do not cook anymore
    -its microwaved-so the rice (not instant) the Quaker oats, etc are discarded ..it’s a travesty
    Also I cannot believe this country ,can be that callous towards hungry people -the local grocery stores donate rotten vegetables..bent cans-really

    • Nicole Caraccilo says

      I don’t know about you but I cook everyday for my family and I utilize the food bank’s quite often. Actually the rolled oats, not instant oatmeal, is one of my kids favorite things to eat. Seriously I don’t know where you got that concept that nobody Cooks anymore.

  9. Amy Angell says

    I recently had to get food from food bank , I have three kids and I had to throw away several items because they were rotted and out of date . One pack of meat was dated 2008 …If you cant eat it how is it helping people. Think about what you would feed your children before you donate or give food out. The last bank gave us fruit and potatoes that were good. Thank God. I pray they will be blessed….

  10. Sam says

    I have been feeding my family out of a food pantry for nearly a year now. The allowance of expired foods really needs to change. As your list shows 90days past on dairy products. That is insane. Food poisoning can kill people. Every month I can get a box of food and have to through out about a third because it is unsafe to eat. When your job pays so bad that you have resorted going to a food pantry, the last thing you can afford is to risk getting sick and you definitely don’t want your kids sick.

    One time after not having any bread for three months I showed up at the food pantry and could see right away that each box had a loaf of bread from a bakery on top. The kind in a brown papper bag with a clear plastic window on top. I even said it out loud, “ooohhh bread.” I was so happy to be getting that bread that I wanted to cry. I got home and waited for my two kids to get off the bus. They were as excited as I was. Bread was a huge treat. We pulled it out of the bag and the entire bottom of the loaf was green. I dropped to the floor and just started bawling like a baby. My heart was broken. It makes me cry every single time I think of it. I am even crying as I type this.

    Just a few weeks ago I was at a produce give away. They had heads of lettuce. Every single one was rotting.

    No one who is struggling to feed themselves and their family should have to take home food just to throw it away. It is cruel and heartless to give put any food that is expired. It just fuels depression, which a very large number of impoverished people suffer from already. We would rather get a smaller box of all good food than get old, out of date, moldy, or soured food.

    • Nicole Caraccilo says

      I hear you sister, me and my kids have the same problem. Yesterday when we went to the salt mine in Lincoln they had a bunch of boxes of bread that was covered in mold like an animal wouldn’t even touch it. The milk we got was sour, but my kids still drink it because it’s the only milk we have. They get a bunch of meat from the grocery stores but they never give it out they hoarded and big freezers and the people who own it are the ones who eat it I hear. We never ever ever ever get meet at our food bank in town. They give us a lot of dried beans. And this time we got like 10 bags of walnuts, I don’t know what I’m going to do with those, I am thankful for it however because as I’m sure you’re well aware of as you sound like you’re in the same situation as me, but we have to eat what we get so it’s bittersweet, we’re thankful but then again it sucks. Since my husband died three years ago we have not had a single steak.. even so rare that we would have chicken. So I really wish our food bank would start Distributing the meat that they have. Not to mention all 3 of my kids either currently have, or had anemia in the past year.

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