FAQs about food banking

What is the difference between a food bank and a food pantry?

Unlike a food pantry, a food bank has the space and capacity to handle large donations from the food industry. For example, a food bank has room for a donation of thousands of pounds of frozen, bulk carrots in one of its coolers and can safely process that donation into family-sized portions in its reclamation department. Food banks and food pantries work together to fill neighbors’ plates. The food bank sources, processes and temporarily stores large quantities of various foods. Then, food pantries choose the items and quantities they need to do their work.

Does the food bank charge for food?

Our partners are not allowed to charge clients for food, but our partners do pay a “shared maintenance fee” of 16 to 18 cents per pound of food received from the food bank. This helps us cover overhead costs tied to handling food for the food pantry or meal program. When our partners select items we purchased at wholesale cost—to fill the gaps left by donated food—they also reimburse us for the cost of those items.

Why do companies have so much surplus food?

Food waste occurs at every stage of the food system—from the farm to the dinner table. According to the US Department of Agriculture, up to 40 percent of food produced in the U.S is wasted. Reasons for food waste include bumper crops, package misprints, storage and transportation issues, imperfect aesthetics and over ordering. While much of the food waste occurs during production, 58 percent occurs at consumption (in homes or restaurants), according to the World Resources Institute.  

The food system in the United States aims to produce just the right amount of food, based on historical purchasing trends. This means if something suddenly stops selling well, there’s surplus. This showed up in reverse early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when so many people began rushing the stores to purchase shelf-stable food. The food system hadn’t expected so many sales at once and didn’t have warehouses full of extra waiting in reserve, so the shelves went bare.  

What makes Mobile Pantries unique?  

In 1998, former Feeding America West Michigan Executive Director John Arnold saw a pop bottle truck driving down the street and thought its roll-up side doors would be a great way to distribute perishable items to people who need them. Mobile Food Pantries were born soon after and the model has since been adopted by food banks across the country! Mobile Pantries act like farmers markets on wheels, bringing fresh produce and other food directly to communities in need. In contrast, traditional pantries and other hunger-relief programs often don’t have space or equipment to store fresh produce, so they focus on shelf-stable items.  

What’s your connection to the Feeding America National Organization?  

Feeding America West Michigan is 1 of 200 food banks in the national network. Together, we serve neighbors in need across the entire country.  

Are there other food banks in Michigan?  

Yes! Ours is 1 of 7 Feeding America member food banks serving Michigan. The Food Bank Council of Michigan developed this map to show each food bank’s service area. Our 40 counties are green.  

What is the Food Bank Council of Michigan’s role in hunger-relief? 

The Food Bank Council of Michigan was founded in 1984—through cooperative efforts of the state’s regional food banks—with a purpose to unify the strategy of hunger-relief efforts across the state. They help Michigan’s food banks access food and advocate on behalf of the hunger-relief network to government representatives. 

What’s the government’s role in hunger-relief efforts?  

For every one meal the Feeding America network provides, SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) provides nine. Because of SNAP and other government hunger-relief programs, many neighbors have consistent access to nourishing food. Other programs include: 

  • WIC, which serves young children and mothers 
  • TEFAP (The Emergency Food Assistance Program), which provides food from farms and other places to families in need, often distributed by food banks 
  • National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs  

All of these programs, and more, work together to mitigate and decrease food insecurity across the country.  

What role do nonprofits fill in hunger-relief efforts?  

Government hunger-relief programs don’t eliminate the need for charitable food assistance. For example, a family who faces unemployment may need charitable food assistance while they wait for SNAP benefits to come through. Or a low-income family may make just a little bit too much to qualify for any government programs. Or a senior living on a fixed income might qualify for only $16 in SNAP benefits. Or children who qualify for the National School Lunch Program during the week may not have access to other government hunger-relief programs on the weekends. In all of these situations, the charitable food system can step in and fill the gaps.  

Do you distribute fresh and nutritious foods?  

Yes! Since the 1990s, practices have gradually shifted toward providing a wide variety of nourishing foods. At Feeding America West Michigan, our volunteers work hard to sort through all the items donated to us and discard what’s unusable, and our staff works hard to prioritize nutritious options. In fact, in 2020, one-third of the food we provided to our hunger-relief partners were fruits or vegetables. And, nearly half of the food provided by our Mobile Food Pantries is fresh produce!  

Today, many traditional food pantries allow clients to shop as if they were at a grocery store, choosing the foods that are right for their families. New models like food clubs are also becoming more popular, where fruits and vegetables are as fresh as anywhere else—and “cost” fewer points than less-healthy options.  

In short, the food bank and our partner food pantries and meal programs work hard to ensure the food we offer our neighbors is worthy of our own dinner tables. 

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