Food pantries have become the staple of giving and receiving, especially around the holidays. While the idea is a generous and commendable one, is does not go without risks to the receiver of donated goods. Long established into our way of life, food drives have become popular outreach projects of clubs, organizations and even the postal service. To help others in a simple way has become the norm in many major cities and communities and is a way to give to others less fortunate than ourselves. An easy way to help, often food items donated are the cans and dry goods we find in the back of the cabinet, many times collecting dust for years. The benefit of a food pantry is a most welcome gift during a time of need, but does not go without risks of outdated or stale goods.
Workers at food banks are often full of smiles as they collect items for a family to be bagged and boxed off the shelf. The recipient does not always have a choice in what they receive and is surprised with the grab bag of goodies. Being out of work and enduring hardships often lead people to shyly venture in the free reservoir of food. Even a usual prosperous family needing help for a time, may be embarrassed and try to mask their identity as they venture into their local resource center. It can be a humbling experience, but one that is necessary to feed their family.
Blessed with good intentions, food banks were designed to help stretch the food dollar in between regular monthly food stamp allotments and meager paychecks. They gladly accept donations from various sources and distribute the canned goods and snacks to well deserving patrons. Going by real need and an income scale, recipients qualify to accumulate store brand condiments, dry goods, unheard of cans of this and that and sometimes left-overs from local bakeries and restaurants. It is a true potpourri of edible stuff to sort through upon returning home.
Health departments usually make regular visits to inspect facilities that donate and serve food. At least once a year, they are required to check temperatures of refrigerated items and proper storage of dry goods. Checks are done, but many food banks are missed and the regulations are not as strict as in a retail store. If people waiting in the soup kitchen line are lucky, their servers will be healthy and wearing gloves as they pass out the Holiday feast. Volunteers are hard to find, but rest assured, regular workers are required to participate in food safety courses.
Free food is wonderful, needed and readily supplied through organizations wanting to help. Their compassion is genuine as they try not to pass judgment on the people they serve. The ultimate consumer knows as a beggar, they can not be choosers and are grateful for the benevolent gifts they receive. To be aware of the goods they take home is just a simple alert to where their next meal is really coming from.
Expiration dates are often ignored and are up to the receiver to sort out. At least manufacturers, wholesalers and retailers are immune from liability, which protects businesses from goods beyond their normal control. President Bill Clinton approved the Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act in 1996, protecting businesses from harm. This also helps name brands as they are meant to be sold in a timely manner through retail outlets. Receiving stale goods reflects a bad image on companies, not a fault of their own. Once a food item leaves a place of business and is donated, it can sit on a shelf well beyond the normal range of salability, waiting to find its new home. Knowing the risks associated with receiving donated goods can ensure safe eating.
Food banks rely on donated food items and even often provide toys and games to children. The usual fare they receive are typical dry goods of unhealthy snacks and cereals and salt-laden cans of vegetables. Any fresh meat, dairy products and deli items should be checked for expiration dates and pitched if past their prime. Eating bad food is worse than being hungry, so precautions should be observed when feeding a family from a donated source.
The best gift to food banks is the gift of cash that can be used towards purchasing fresh, healthy food that is not expired from a grocery store that is regulated and checked. The recipient can choose the food they want and desire with the cash gift card. Eat, drink and be merry, so they say, but be alert to gifts of food that come your way.
By: Roanne H. FitzGibbon