Emergency Food Pantry Nutrition Tips

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What Is an Emergency Food Pantry?

While the terms emergency food pantry and food bank are sometimes used interchangeably, they are, in fact, distinctly different operations.  However, they sometimes can exist in one infrastructure as well. 

A food bank is essentially a distribution and warehouse center where food is inventoried and collected.  From the food bank, food and other essential items will then be distributed to food pantries.

 A food pantry, including emergency food pantries, are the facilities in which food is distributed to the public.

Veggies in bins and canned beans on shelf
Emergency Food Pantry Warehouse
Canned food at food pantry
canned food at food pantry

How Can I get Food From a Food Bank or Pantry?

1 in 7 Americans or approximately 45,000  folks annually utilize food pantries at some point throughout the year to nourish themselves.  Further, about 33% of folks utilizing an emergency food pantry will have a chronic condition such as diabetes.

What these statistics tell me is that from time to time, we can all use a little help from our friends! The most excellent thing here is that food pantries can provide us with foods to properly nourish. This can help us manage chronic conditions. 

The USDA defines food insecurity at  varying levels.  It can generally be defined as a lack of consistent  access to the food that is required to live an active healthy life.  

Hunger on the other hand is different than food insecurity.  It is the physiological result of consistent food insecurity.

Hunger has real physiological impacts on the body, especially in individuals faced with a chronic condition such as diabetes.  

How Do I Sign Up for An Emergency Food Pantry?

The requirements for using a food pantry will very from one pantry to the next.  However, a few common things they will look for include: 

  • Identification
  • Address
  • Verification of number of household members. 

Many emergency food  pantries will allow address verification as simple as a note from someone stating you are living at their residence. Think “here’s a note from my sister that states I’m the official couch potato until further notice.”

If you don’t have an address or ID card, many food pantries and food banks will also allow you to still collect donated food or certain food items like bread.  

Participants that find themselves with food insecurity should also consider applying for SNAP.

Contrary to popular belief, many food pantries do not even have an income requirement.  You can often also visit multiple pantries through the month. 

emergency food pantry boxes
emergency food pantry boxes
chopping colorful veggies
make the most of emergency pantry food

Let's Make the Most of Your Pantry Visit!

Using a food pantry can sometimes seem a bit like navigating foreign terrain. In a way, a food bank is a little like that infamous box of chocolates Forrest Gump is constantly referencing.  You never know what you’re going to get.  

Except the box is not chocolates. It’s food! Whole heaps of it- some familiar some foreign to each partaker. This can make food bank shopping exciting and daunting simultaneously!

Bri Bell, RD of Frugal Minimalist Kitchen  tells us, “Sometimes the foods in the food bank hamper are a bit random and don’t necessarily make complete meals. You could try doing a Chopped challenge to have a bit of fun with the food and get the whole family involved in preparing the meal. See what kind of creative dishes you come up with!”

Bell also reminds “If you’re stocking your pantry for the first time on a budget, head to the food bank first. Depending what you get in your food hamper, then you can use your grocery budget to buy foods that complete the hamper foods into meals. Doing this will help you avoid spending money on duplicates.”‘

I love these ideas! Many food banks allow 1-2 visits per person/family monthly.  Try planning these trips prior to your grocery shopping to make food go further! 

What To Expect on My First Pantry Visit

Set up can vary from one pantry location to the next.  Many food pantries are now set up like small shopping centers. Other pantries may provide ready made boxes for guests. 

At FISH food bank of Ellensburg, and other emergency food pantries across the nation, you are able to peruse the shelves with your own grocery cart and select what you like. 

There will be instructions on how  much of each item is allowed per patron.  With many food groups, you may have options as to which variety of the item you will select (for example, whole grain or white rice). 

empty grocery cart in grocery store aisle
many pantries are set up like small shopping centers
whole grain bread
grains at the emergency food pantry

Get Your Grains!

The most common grains you will likely find at a food pantry will include: 

  • Pasta
  • Bread
  • Oatmeal
  • Rice
  • cereals

However, since many food banks also participate in grocery recovery, a process where groceries that are about to expire are collected, the sky is the limit for grains!

Some food banks may also collect donations from community members, and thus have increased availability of grains and other choices.  

Other grain choices you might find at the food pantry include: 

  • quinoa
  • buckwheat
  • amaranth
  • millet
  • burger
  • spelt

When you are shopping for grains at the food pantry, try looking for whole grains if you are able to select.  Read the labels to determine that it is a good source of fiber.  Choose products with 3g of fiber or more per serving if possible. 

A good rule of thumb for choosing a high quality grain is the first ingredient on the list should be “whole wheat” or whole grain.

If I am able to choose my grains, what should I look for?

When you are shopping for grains at the food pantry, try looking for whole grains if you are able to select.  Read the labels to determine that it is a good source of fiber.  Choose products with 3g of fiber or more per serving if possible. 

A good rule of thumb for choosing a high quality grain is the first ingredient on the list should be “whole wheat” or whole grain.

Using Your Pantry Grains

Grains are an awesome thing to stock up on at the pantry.  If you have a little extra right now, they are an easy choice to save for later!

Grains typically keep fairly well.  Place breads in fridge of freezer to prolong life.  Grains such as pasta and rice can be used for at least a year after expiration date. 


Get Creative

Get creative with grains from the emergency food pantry and improve your diet. You can also cut down on food costs by being creative with grains. Here’s how: 

  • Substitute out a portion of ground hamburger with oatmeal. Reduce food costs, saturated fat, and total calories.  You won’t taste the difference!
  • If you don’t love whole grain pasta and rice, batch cook a larch amount of both whole grain and  refined grained (e.g. white rice) products. When you serve them, combine the two. This can help you become used to the taste difference. It also ensures all products from your food pantry trip can be used. 
  • KeyVoin Miller registered dietitian nutritionist and owner of The Millers Kitchen reminds us Not to be too hard on ourselves and do our best when we are choosing pantry grains. She  encourages us to  “Look for enriched rice or pasta if whole grain options are not available. Enriched foods still give us some extra nutrition that un-enriched foods would not give us.”
bagel with strawberry
nuts and milk
protein options at food pantry

Protein At the Emergency Food Pantry

So many times we limit our definition of protein to beef, chicken or fish.  These are excellent choices and ones you will likely find at the food pantry.  

Many food pantries will alternate out the choices of animal proteins provided at any given time, so it might be a mystery what you will receive.  

The good news is, if we don’t like the meat on the menu or if we’re plant based (ahem-me), we have other protein options. The awesome news is, many of our plant based protein options are abundant in food pantries. 

Non-animal sources of protein include things like: 

  • beans
  • rice
  • lentils
  • quinoa
  • buckwheat
  • soy
  • seeds
  • vegetables and fruits

Eggs, dairy, cheese, and yogurt are also excellent food pantry choices for protein.

Make Your Food Pantry Protein Go Further:

Here’s some crazy things you might not know about proteins. 

  • You can freeze cheese.  YES! seal it tight (vacuum seal is best) and freeze up to two months. 
  • If there is mold on hard cheeses, simply cut it off.  This should not be done for soft cheeses. 
  • Milk can also be frozen! If its approaching its due date just pop it in the freezer. Leave some room as milk does expand.  Shake before using after removed from freezer.  Milk can be frozen for 3-6 months. Use a plastic container. 
  • Freeze butter prior to expiration date to preserve life.
  • Creamer can be poured into  ice cube trays and frozen  for easy use with small quantities (think coffee). 
  • Create freezer meals from meats, eggs and grains (think breakfast sandwiches).  This is both convenient for meals and pantry shopping savvy.
  • Choose more dried and canned beans. These typically have a long shelf life. They can also be substituted for a portion of meat in many recipes. 
  • Get those nuts on the shelf if they’re available! You can even get creative with many varieties of nuts and create cream sauces, dairy alternatives, and pesto sauces in a pinch. 
beans in hands
protein staples at the food pantry
produce boxes in emergency food pantry warehouse
produce boxes in emergency food pantry warehouse

Vary Your Produce

Produce is likely to be among the most variable items at the pantry.  Variation of produce can depend on: 

  • Recent donations
  • Grocery recovery availability
  • Seasonal availability
Too often we trick ourselves into thinking that fresh produce is the only nutritious option. KeyVoin Miller, RDN reminds us that “When shopping at a food bank, don’t be ashamed (or afraid) to take advantage of the canned foods.  Make your selections healthier by dumping the contents of the can in a colander and rinsing under running water to remove ~ 40% of the sodium.”

And if its summer and the produce pickings are good, we can use our surplus in many ways! For example: 

  • Toss excess bananas and spinach in the freezer for easy smoothies down the road. 
  • Fresh fresh herbs in ice cube trays in oils for flavor at a later date. 
  • Many veggies can be blanched briefly, dried and frozen. 
  • Freeze veggie greens and excess pieces to make veggie stock at a later date. 

Want to get the greatest shelf life out of your emergency food pantry produce?  Check out some awesome ways reduce food waste simply with proper storage of produce. 


What Should I Do with All These Sweets?

Sweet are AWESOME! However, there is certainly such thing as too much of a good thing. 

Often times these are both the items most donated from groceries as well as those that last on the shelves the longest.  Thus, they may be in surplus at many pantries. 

It’s great to have a sweet treat, but what do you do when you suddenly have a few too many?

I have a few tips: 

  • have a get together with friends, enjoy the company, and share the wealth. 
  • Freeze extra goodies in portioned out packaging.  
  • Take extra  to the office! Make new friends! Enjoy goodies at work.
  • Give goodies a spot. Put goodies in the pantry so you can grab hem when you like, but they are not staring at you on the counter. 
box of krispy kremes
sweets can be common at food pantries
pre prepped salads

What Other Resources and Programs Does a Food Pantry Provide:

Food banks are often very integral components of community. Their value can occur both on and off site.  Some other programs that may be sponsored through a food bank include: 

  • Meals on wheels programs
  • Senior nutrition programs (including a hot lunch)
  • Soup kitchens 
  • Medically managed meals programs for those with chronic conditions. 

Many programs are managed by nutrition experts such as registered dietitian nutritionists.  

Many emergency food pantries and food banks provide items like clothing, toiletries, and pet food as well as food. 

Invest in a Food Pantry for Nourishment

Food pantries are like that pal you can call on any time and be assured they’ve got your back.  They are  resources that do so much more than just provide food. 

Food banks and pantries bring communities together.  They nourish both mentally and physically. 

Do you have any great resources that can help a neighbor use a pantry?  Drop them below in the comments!

©2020 Shenajaramillord.peaceandnutrition

soup in dishes
Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian
Latest posts by Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian (see all)

Shena Jaramillo. Registered Dietitian

Hi I'm Shena. I believe in choosing plants first, honoring your hunger, and that a little humor goes a long way.

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