What Should I Bring to the Food Pantry? 9 Essential Items You Wouldn’t Expect

I haven’t always been financially stable. At my sickest, I was living off of the kindness of friends and the food pantry, and I remember vividly how hard that was. I also remember the ridiculous number of can of green beans I got every week.

(Green beans have very few calories, and I can’t eat canned ones to this day because of how many I went through. I tried mixing them into everything to make them edible. Please, if you’re donating food, donate things YOU would want to eat. Be kind, okay?)

So, when our church put a call out for donations, I brainstormed. What had I wished the food pantry had when I was going there? A lot of things get cut when you’re tight on money, and food will keep you alive but not provide for a lot of other vital needs.

So, here are some suggestions! Keep in mind, I buy cheaper items so that my dollar goes further. These are all items that don’t tend to be provided through another source – you won’t see diapers or formula because they can be acquired through multiple other sources for example.

  1. Toilet paper. This is one of the first things to get cut back, going through cheaper and cheaper brands until you can’t afford it at all.
  2. Menstrual items. Tampons and pads are ESSENTIAL if you’re a girl, but are so expensive it’s ridiculous. You can’t NOT address your period, and I have made so many makeshift pads out of toilet paper it’s not even funny. PLEASE consider getting this.
  3. Toothbrushes and toothpaste. When you can’t afford dental work, this is so important, I’m not even kidding. Plus, it’s hard to find help and make friends when your breath is foul and your teeth are grody.
  4. Deodorant. No one wants to stink if they have a choice about it. You can get $1 and $2 sticks for either gender.
  5. Shampoo and conditioner. This doesn’t have to be expensive – I buy and donate some of the cheapest brands, but cleanliness makes a better impression on people. It’s depressing to know your hair looks stringy and greasy.
  6. Body wash and/or bars of soap. See above. Being able to clean up makes you feel SO much better and gives you confidence.
  7. Laundry detergent. Same thought process. Cleaning up is hard when your clothes are still gross. I’ve washed items in a sink with a bar of soap so often it’s not even funny. Individual packets of liquid or powder detergent are amazing. Assume they don’t have access to a washing machine so don’t get the pods necessarily.
  8. Detangler. Yes, this seems like an odd one, but have you ever had to comb through a little kid’s hair without it? It sounds like you’re murdering them, and you’re cringing as they cry. I don’t have kids, but I assume that others do.
  9. Dish soap. This is lower on the list of essentials, but I throw it in just the same because being able to clean up your dishes means less money spent on paper plates and things that are just thrown out. You can also use it to clean house if you need to.

These are my main ones that are my go to for donating.

If it’s back to school season, I’ll also add the following:

  1. Spiral bound and composition notebooks. They’re SO inexpensive during back to school, and every kid needs them.
  2. Plastic folders. They’re stronger than the paper ones, cost very little more, and last forever.
  3. Plain pencils. They’re sure to sharpen well – the fancy ones with patterns on them get chewed up funny by sharpeners and work poorly.
  4. Black and blue pens. I also tend to throw in red pens if they’re available.
  5. Highlighters. Cheap packs of these aren’t expensive, and your older students use them a LOT.
  6. Loose leaf paper in packs.

Now, these are the absolute bare essentials for school, but you can look around at what other items are cheap. If I have money left over, I buy crayon and colored pencil packs, sharpeners, erasers, and post its.

I will note that if you’re getting crayons or such… stick to Crayola. They’re cheapish and uniformly high quality.

Hopefully this list will get you brainstorming. It isn’t exhaustive, and there are any number of other items that might be useful – hair ties come to mind for example or razors.

If you can’t afford to go out and buy things like this, that’s okay! Food pantries are FOOD pantries and food donations of unopened items are ALWAYS welcome.

But… donate things YOU like to eat, okay?

Header image generated by Midjourney AI.

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