Food Pantry Donations. Justice, or Junk for Jesus?

Over the Christmas holiday I spent some time with my fellow YAVs sorting through donations at A Place to Turn (APPT), a food pantry and clothes closet in Natick, a township to the west of Boston.  My roommate Kathleen works there part time along with the Hartford Street Presbyterian Church just across the parking lot on the property backing up against the Natick Mall (A HUGE mall).  Her project is to start a community garden on the church property with 75 plots that community members can use to grow their own produce after being asked to donate at least 10% of their produce to A Place to Turn. 



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We spent four hours sorting through their donated canned and boxed food items.  They are largely dependent on donations, and they’ve received a ton of food from holiday food drives from local boy scouts, schools, and churches.  Our job was to sort through all the donations to categorize it by food type, and to pull out the food that would expire before February 2014 to get it on the shelves ASAP, and to put the food that expired within the last 6 months out on the “Expired” shelf–clients take whatever they want of recently expired items but are not forced to take it.


They are God’s people.  Maybe we shouldn’t insult them with items far past the end of their lifetime.


APTT lets the guests walk through and choose which of each item they want from the shelf giving them more control over their food selection.  Clothes items, toiletries, diapers, cleaning supplies–all things people cannot purchase with food stamps– are also available.  Anyone in the “Metro West” area in need can be served there.  The food is actually pretty good, there is usually some fresh produce donated from grocery stores, lots of canned vegetables, and relatively few snack foods.  It’s a well run operation, on the outgoing side, however we did see the high need for quality control on the donations.


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We threw away five large boxes full of donated good that have past their “best by” date.  Some of it made it to the “shelf of shame” (a place reserved for only the oldest and nastiest donations).  In my mission trips to Baja, they referred to this as “Junk for Jesus”–things people just give away instead of throwing away no matter how nasty it is thinking they are helping someone, but they forget the golden rule, “do unto others as you’d have them do unto you”.  In the donations that arrived between Nov. 1 and Dec. 30 that we looked through we found shelves upon shelves of useful items, but plenty of old, nasty things to keep it fun.


There were plenty of expired cans, boxes of hamburger helper, beans, jelly, etc. some from 2007 or earlier.  The ones that surprised us were opened and used bottles of soap and shampoo, opened and used toothpaste, and you won’t believe it when you hear it, Hemorrhoid medicine pads from 1978!

Some of those donations to the food pantry should have gone to the landfill directly from the person’s home…twenty years ago!


We did rescue some of the expired goods from 2012 and 2013 for our lunch.


As always this comes back to the bigger issues of food justice:  More than 1/3 of the food produced in the U.S. gets wasted!  We saw that today.  Why don’t people eat all their food before it expires?  And why are the holiday boy scout food drives or the Souper Bowl of Caring, the only times people look through all the food that’s in their house?  Food Justice starts at home folks!  America, lets cut back on the waste and eat the food we buy!  Forget all the labor and energy that went into it if you want, but you did pay for that food, why didn’t you eat it? I’m as guilty as the next person, having done this before, but I’m likely not to do it again after this year.  Why are so many people hungry if there is so much food wasted?


These are questions we must investigate.


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A few tips for donating food items to pantries:

  • Ask what specific items are needed and supply those.
  • Check your cabinets on a regular basis to make sure you are using all the food you bought. It will save you money in the long run.
  • Check the date, don’t donate old things to the food pantry, In Massachusetts, if it’s more than a year old they can’t even put it on the shelf for expired goods.  Either eat it yourself or throw it away. (better yet if it’s expired, open the can, compost it or digest it to extract the methane, and recycle or sell the tin can for scrap metal).
  • Consider donating money so they can buy what they need
  • Volunteer at the food pantry you donate to to understand how to serve them better


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