Food Banks, Food Pantries and Meal Programs all play a vital role in supporting those in need because of financial hardships or food insecurity all year long. While volunteers and donations are at their highest peak during the holidays, this intricate network of supply continues throughout the year to provide a vital connection between nutritious food for growth & health, while preserving dignity, faith & trust. Looking deeper, what actually is the difference between a food bank and food pantry? How do they operate? Are they different from a soup kitchen (now called a meal program)?

In this month’s blog we wanted to take an engineer’s view of the delicate network of food banks, pantries, and meal program networks that serve millions in the nation. We also wanted to highlight the non-profits and caring volunteers who are battling Food Insecurities by nourishing communities, and who provide the drive to reduce Food Deserts, which appear across the nation, regardless of economic wealth indicators.


Food Bank, Food Pantry – What’s the Difference? 

According to Merriam Webster, the definition of a food bank is Usually a non-profit organization that collects donated food and distributes it to people in need.” The term “Food Bank” entered the national lexicon in 1971.

Feeding America, one of the largest Food Bank networks uses this more contemporary definition: “A food bank is a non-profit organization that collects and distributes food to hunger-relief charities. Food banks act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller front-line agencies; and usually do not themselves give out food directly to people struggling with hunger.”

Food banks in large communities and cities often feature a central location with refrigeration capability, storage space for canned and dry goods, and produce areas for fresh fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meats. All food banks have some variation of shipping and receiving capabilities, and administrative spaces to serve patrons, as well to accept donations. Larger food banks also benefit from corporate support within their city or state to compliment the local personal benefactors and public donations.

Food pantries, on the other hand, provide a source of free, healthy and nutritious food in a neighborhood or other small geographic area, and can also provide additional resources such as nutrition education, health screenings, seasonal food baskets and back to school supplies. According to the LSS Food Pantry Website: “… A food pantry is different than a food bank in that it provides food directly to those who may not have enough food to eat.” Food pantries can be either permanent locations or mobile distribution.”

Food pantries provide a vital source of nutrition for financially struggling households. Data from the USDA, Economic Research Service (ERS) shows that use of food pantries increased from 2019 to 2020. In 2020, 6.7 percent of all U.S. households reported using a food pantry, an increase from 4.4 percent in 2019.


Is it a Meal Program or a Soup Kitchen? 

Smaller communities, or neighborhoods within a city have charitable groups or organizations that offer ready-to-eat meals in a steady location such as a church, mission, etc. serving the critical immediate need for nourishment. The location also served as a place to possibly gather for shelter, warmth, health care, or social services.

While in the past, these places of respite were more often known as “Soup Kitchens,” today, the terminology has advanced to “Meal Programs.” Long-term volunteers, benefactors and daily volunteers from the community are key to sustained success of meal programs. In addition to the bricks and mortar meal programs, there are also programs in communities, such as Meals on Wheels which bring food to those who cannot travel from their homes.


Food Insecurity or Food Desert? – There is a Difference

Food Insecurity refers to USDA’s Economic Research backed with 20+ years of data showing of lack of access, at times, to enough food for an active, healthy life for all household members and limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate foods. While food is available sporadically within the home, being food insecure means the decision to purchase nourishing food for the family is compromised due to other financial responsibilities such as housing, transportation, medical issues, etc. Data from the USDA research shows that 38.3 million people lived in food-insecure households.

Food deserts, according to the Anna E. Casey Foundation “…are geographic areas where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable and healthy foods — especially fresh fruits and vegetables. Food deserts create extra, everyday hurdles that can make it harder for kids, families and communities to grow healthy and strong. Researchers estimated that 19 million people or 6.2% of the nation’s total population had limited access to a supermarket or grocery store.” 

Food deserts can happen in the most unexpected places. In a study conducted by Feeding America: of the 150 food banks that responded to the survey, 129 reported they are working to address hunger among college students. Earlier this year, the student association at Oglethorpe University, a private liberal arts college in Atlanta, opened a food pantry to serve students who may be on a scholarship for education, but may come from low economic means.

The problem of living in a food insecure or a food desert environment goes beyond buying nutritious food; it crosses into an economic issue as well. The base costs of nutritious food items at convenient-type stores, so prevalent in desert areas, are often higher in price. So, the choice to eat “healthy” now becomes an economic decision, rather than a wellness one.


How Can I Help?

Do I Volunteer, Contribute Food, Give Funds?

The great news for the food banks, pantries and meal programs is there are generous people who want to help to eliminate food insecurities and deserts. The big question is how is the best way to contribute? Here are a few ideas to consider:

Volunteer Often: 

  • Food Banks and Pantries always need help sorting and packaging food. Go with a group, your family, or as a team building program for your company. It can be a fun and rewarding experience. According to the Atlanta Community Food Bank, in a typical year, over 30,000 volunteers serve over 110,000 hours in support of their mission.
  • Meal Programs offer a face-to-face opportunity to change a life. From setup, serving and cleanup for a few hours, or donating your talents towards operations, administrative or public outreach to help maximize the effect the program has on the community.

Contribute Prudently:

  • Contact food banks and pantries to see which items are in high demand before you donate.
  • Organize or assist a local food collection drive.
  • Make sure that everything you donate is fresh and in date. What you donate now may help a family several months from now!

Donate Smart: 

  • Patronize businesses that partner with food banks, pantries, or meal programs as part of their culture of giving.
  • See if your company has a corporate donation match. If not, ask to start one!
  • Look for donor matching bonus opportunities. Drawing upon the generosity of others; your $25 donation can be matched by a donor or corporation, yielding $50 in total donations.
  • For larger food banks, consider donating money instead of food. Due to their size, the food bank will have more purchasing power than a typical consumer, which will stretch your donation further.

No matter how you decide to help provide nourishment to those who need it, every little bit helps! The organizers will be thrilled to see you volunteer at the Food Bank or Pantry, or experience the warmth of giving first-hand when you volunteer at a local Meal Program. And as always, it’s satisfying to contribute towards a financial goal or to provide the means to assist in achieving their mission.