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A food bank is an open pantry that people who are hungry, or are low income and cannot afford food to feed their families, can go to receive free, nutritious food free of charge. In most cases, food banks are in nearly every community in the United States; they are operated by a wide range of groups, including:
- Non-profit groups
- Local governments
- Private firms
Modern food banks have a history that dates back to the early 20th century. In the United States, food banks became an integral part of fighting widespread hunger caused by the Great Depression in the late 1920s to 1930s.
Food banks typically operate either as a warehouse. The warehouse model is what most people think of when they think of a food bank – a collection of shelved food that is stored, and eventually distributed, to smaller food banks.
Often, large food storage areas are organized by warehouse workers much like you would see in the warehouse of a grocery store; a distribution network then transports food to smaller banks where operators either allow people to shop the shelves for a pre-determined amount of food, or divide it into packages that can be picked up by recipients. During this process, food is checked for quality and its expiration date.
Some food banks operate as an independent frontline model, which means they give food directly to individuals as opposed to fanning it out to smaller, in-network food banks. In this circumstance, the food bank most often operates as an independent entity.
Although food banks typically offer edibles to qualified individuals, other items may also be available, such as:
- Laundry soap
- Personal hygiene tools
- Cleaning supplies
Some of the factors used to determine the amount of food a person will receive from a food bank include:
- The size of a person’s family
- The age of family members
- The combined income of a family
- A family’s residence – it must be inside a service area
- Whether a family receives other food aid, such as SNAP, WIC, or NSLP
Food banks also serve another purpose in the community. Because of cutbacks in the federal SNAP program, and the unavailability of Free and Reduced lunch services in the summer months, food banks can help fill in the gap between government benefits and a family’s real-life nutritional needs. But more often than not, if a person is considered homeless, the food bank offers a buffer between the time they apply for, and receive, SNAP benefits.
Also, it’s a misconception that people are living at a shelter cannot receive SNAP assistance and food bank assistance. It also does not matter if a person is a resident at a shelter that serves meals. When a person applies for SNAP, he or she may be asked to provide a letter from the shelter indicating that he or she is a temporary resident. State human services representatives will send an applicant’s EBT card to the shelter, where it will be forwarded to the applicant.
Why are food banks important to displaced families, when the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program is available?
When a family has been displaced because of a foreclosure, or an inability to pay for adequate housing, it’s a stressful situation that causes a collection of additional troubles. One of those issues is the inability to purchase food. Complicating matters is the fact that, if a person has not signed up for SNAP benefits previous to becoming homeless, he or she will have to be able to tap into food while their application cycles through their state human services department.
Food banks are a necessary part of filling this gap because in many communities – typically those that are suburban or rural – have only a limited number of soup kitchens where a hungry individual can receive a hot meal. Additionally, if a person has a disability, he or she may not be able to get out every day to eat meals on site at a soup kitchen.
Some factors that should not come into play when a person applies for assistance from a food bank include:
- A person’s ability to cook or prepare food
- A person’s lack of a permanent address
What resources do food banks have access to fill pantry shelves?
Depending on the type of food bank, sources of food that is given to people in a given community may come from several sources. If the food bank is part of a large network, it is likely that some of the food is secured through the Emergency Food Assistance program, or TEFAP. Under TEFAP, food is made available by the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, which distributes food to food pantries and soup kitchens that directly serve low income individuals. Recipient banks are referred to as Eligible Recipient Agencies, or ERAs.
When TEFAP food is accepted by a pantry, they may provide foods to people that fit a variety of requirements set by individual state governments. These guidelines are based on a person’s income, and are designed to ensure that the neediest residents are served first. In the case of prepared meals – like those that are served at soup kitchens – recipients are not required to undergo means testing.
Other sources of food that help fill food bank shelves include:
- Farms, growers
- Food rescue and gleaning
- Donations from concerned citizens
- Corporate donations; distributors and retailers
- Local community food drives
What regulations govern food banks?
Food banks are a moderately-regulated segment of the social safety net; they are obligated to make sure that what they give to people is fresh and safe.
The USDA is responsible for making sure food banks comply with all federal rules. Many of the rules food banks must adhere to involve food safety.
Some of the safety rules include provisions that address:
- Storage – Food pantries must make sure that food is stored in an area where it will not be damaged or spoiled; the area must adhere to high sanitary standards, have a proper temperature, and have reasonable air circulation. Local ordinances and laws put the same requirements in place for donated food.
- Payments – A food bank that accepts USDA food must agree not to charge persons any related services fees to collect food. This ensures that the recipient will incur no costs. If payments for non-USDA food are required, it must be made clear that it’s not a policy endorsed by the USDA. Generally, most food banks do not charge for any services; most are strictly charitable.
- Distribution – Food must be given out in a timely fashion to make sure that all foods are provided to people before their manufacturer’s expiration date. This is important because no food given out by food banks must be past its expiration date. Effective distribution not only ensures food safety, it also eliminates waste in the system.
- Inventory – The USDA requires that food banks that accept its food take an inventory of what it has so that it can account for all of the food it receives, and all of the food it gives to needy families. This is a process that helps ensure the integrity of the process, and makes it possible for local pantries to continuing receiving USDA support.