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11 Best Healthy Foods to Donate to a Food Pantry

Expired foods and specialty foods don’t make the cut

  • People donating food

    Donate Smart, Donate Healthy

    En español | Food pantries desperately need donated groceries to help struggling seniors and families, but some things just don’t make the cut. Take, for example, the 440 pounds of candy the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, Md., was given last fall by dentists off-loading sweets turned in by kids during a Halloween campaign to help them cut back on cavities. The organization threw it all away. What's needed are nutritious products that clients can easily turn into hearty meals - like these items.

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  • Bag of spinach

    1. Fresh food

    “This is the No. 1 item most food pantries and meal prep agencies want more of,” says Amy Bachman, procurement manager at DC Central Kitchen in Washington. The challenge? Fresh veggies, meats and fruits can be pricey and go bad quickly. Instead, think about a monetary donation. “If we had money to spend on fresh items to buy all year long, that would really allow us to provide the food people want,” says Umbriac, director of nutrition programs for Manna. Health benefit: Veggies provide a heap of nutrients, and they can be prepared several different ways, as a salad or snack, raw or cooked, says dietitian Sherene Chou with L.A. Kitchen in Los Angeles.

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  • Oats bags

    2. Dry or low-sodium canned beans

    Black, kidney or garbanzo beans are good as a side dish; to toss into salads, soups or stir-fries; or to wrap in a tortilla. Just be sure to check the expiration date before you donate it. “Don’t give expired canned goods, as most agencies won’t give them out,” Bachman says. Health benefit: Beans are high in minerals and fiber, and are a good source of protein without the cholesterol and fat.

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    3. Brown rice or whole wheat pasta

    These two are whole grain winners because they’re easy to store, and a little goes a long way for individuals and families. Just a half-cup serving can keep the tummy satisfied. Compared with white rice, brown rice is definitely better nutritionally, Umbriac says. Health benefit: “Research shows whole grains may help keep body weight down [and] prevent diabetes, heart disease and some cancers,” says Washington dietitian Katherine Tallmadge, author of Diet Simple

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  • Canned Tuna

    4. Canned tuna or salmon

    Like most of the foods on the list, these two superstars offer high-protein, ready-to-eat nourishment. Make a sandwich with the tuna, or spread either on a bed of greens for a healthy salad. Health benefit: Both are a great source of omega-3 fatty acids, a polyunsaturated fat linked to decreased risk of heart disease and stroke. Make the fish even healthier by choosing cans that say BPA-free, meaning the can’s plastic lining was made without a toxic chemical that some studies suggest may lead to a higher risk of cancer and heart problems.

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  • Peanut butter

    5. Peanut or almond butter

    A healthy nut butter makes for a tasty and filling snack, lunch or dinner with whole wheat bread or crackers. Chou suggests buying an unsweetened version with no additives. Health benefit: Both serve as a complete protein when paired with whole grain bread.

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  • Spices

    6. Dried herbs and spices

    Spices like black pepper, basil and cinnamon can be little luxuries to the less fortunate, and they come with added health benefits. “This is a healthy way to add flavor to salads or meat without additional salt to the diet,” Chou says. Turmeric, cumin, parsley and rosemary are other healthful options to donate. Health benefit: They’re high in polyphenols (micronutrients that help with the prevention of degenerative diseases) and antioxidants, which delay cell damage.

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    7. Cooking oils

    Healthier oils — olive, canola and sunflower — can be used for cooking food and also to make a homemade dressing for salads. Health benefit: Good fats are essential to a nutritious diet, Chou says, and the healthier, unsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils.

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    8. Canned fruit (in juice)

    “Fruit is universally loved, but we don’t see a lot of it because it can be expensive,” Umbriac says. Choose fruit canned in natural juices, water or a light syrup. “We use the 4-ounce fruit cups in our weekend bags for children, but we also provide full-sized cans of fruit for the family to share. It’s nice to have both available.” Health benefit: Even canned fruit is packed with essential vitamins, even if it’s higher in sugar. “Getting the recommended serving of fruits and veggies is what’s important,” Umbriac says.

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    9. Canned tomatoes

    This popular superfood often costars in garden salads but can also be used on sandwiches, or diced up into soups and other meals. When donating canned tomatoes, make sure you choose the lower-sodium versions. Health benefit: Tomatoes are high in lycopene,  which may help lower the risk of prostate, skin, breast, lung and liver cancers, according to the National Cancer Institute. “Tomatoes are high in vitamins A and C,” Tallmadge says.

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  • Oatmeal

    10. Steel-cut or rolled oats

    For a heart-healthy, filling breakfast, add a container of oatmeal to your donation list. Nutrition experts prefer high-fiber steel-cut or rolled oats because they keep people feeling fuller longer and are less processed. But there’s no denying the convenience of instant packs, although they often contain added sugar, Umbriac says. Boxed cereals aren’t all bad and are popular with food pantry clients, she adds. Choose those with less than 5 grams of sugar and at least 5 grams of fiber per serving. Health benefits: The dietary fiber found in whole grains, such as oatmeal, has been shown to lower “bad” cholesterol, making them heart-friendly. That same fiber helps you feel full to help manage weight.

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  • Baby food

    11. Healthy baby food

    The healthiest baby foods to donate, says Chou, are 100 percent single fruit or single vegetable jars or pouches. The ingredients should be just the fruit or the vegetable and water. “Avoid those with added sugars, fillers like modified starches, preservatives and colors.” Health benefit: In addition to the vitamins and minerals in veggies and fruits, these foods are convenient, nutrient dense and easy to consume.

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