Food Bank Donations

Food banks are charitable organizations that collect and distribute donated foods from schools, restaurants, supermarkets, food processors, and community events to help feed the hungry. In recent years, there has been a growing concern about how to provide adequate amounts of safe, nutritious food to people who are unable to acquire it themselves, and food banks and pantry sites play a critical role in addressing the food security concerns of people and communities in need. For example:

  • In Colorado alone, 11% of the population lives in poverty, totaling nearly 500,000 individuals.
  • In addition, Colorado has seen a 31% increase in food insecure households from 1999 to 2004 (Wallner 2007).
  • One in eight households in Colorado are food insecure with hunger, including 13% of children that are at or below the poverty line (Food Bank of the Rockies 2006).

While it is important to feed this population, it is equally important to ensure that the food distributed is safe to consume. At risk populations known to be susceptible to foodborne pathogens include pregnant women, those with suppressed immune function, children, and the elderly. Together, these groups represent nearly 20% of the American population (Kendall 2003), and an even higher percentage of patrons visiting food banks. Food safety has applications outside of the home and retail food establishments; programs are now being rigorously implemented in organizations that provide food to the hungry.

An organizational food safety hierarchy exists to protect consumers being served through the national food bank network. Each level of the hierarchy, from the national to the local, has instituted rules guiding the procurement of donated foods. Becoming familiar with the regulations at each level will support the continued distribution of healthy food and farm products to food bank consumers.

Food Safety

Food safety is an integral part of managing food donations and distribution at food banks.  Depending on the food bank, only certain foods may be accepted. Non-potentially hazardous foods are common, including:

  • dry goods (flour, sugar),
  • foods that do not require refrigeration,
  • canned goods in sound condition with no dents or swelling,
  • whole fresh fruits,
  • whole fresh vegetables,
  • baked goods (not cream filled), and
  • packaged condiments.

Other foods such as meats, eggs, and highly perishable items must be stored, prepared, and handled properly. Employee training, evaluation of donated food, being aware of product dating, and maintenance of the facilities are all an integral part of a safe and functional food bank organization.

Food Safety Training

Food banks are required to maintain food safety credentials for their volunteers, employees, and participating agencies. Recipients of food bank items often include individuals who are at greater risk and often more severely affected by foodborne illness. Food bank personnel must diligently practice the recommended food safety guidelines to cater to this population. A shortage of workers trained in food safety procedures and an overall high turnover rate of employees have been identified as barriers to safe food handling practices (Dean 2008).

On average, food safety training programs have achieved a 78% increase in participant knowledge of foodborne illness risk factors, hand washing procedures, cross-contamination, safe food temperatures, sanitizing procedures, and product storage (Wallner 2007). The continued use of food safety curriculum can be justified by the documented improvement of food safety knowledge in food recovery agency personnel and volunteers (Dean 2008).

To minimize the risk of distributing or serving unsafe foods, at least one food agency employee should be ServSafe Certified, and there should be a designated person who has completed food safety training available on every shift. The person in charge or the food safety manager must ensure that employees and volunteers:

  • obtain food from approved sources,
  • follow proper hand washing and hygiene practices,
  • monitor time and temperature controls,
  • prevent cross-contamination, and
  • use only approved salvaging methods (Montana 2003).

Food Recovery/ Gleaning

The term ‘food recovery’ or ‘gleaning’ refers to the collection of wholesome food from agricultural fields, retail stores, and foodservice establishments. Large quantities of wholesome, edible food are lost at every stage in our country’s food system. Fresh fruits and vegetables had the highest percent losses in the food system accounting for 18.9 billion pounds (19.6%) of more than 96 billion pounds lost nation-wide. By recovering perishable food from supermarkets, prepared foods from restaurants, and gleaning crops left after mechanical harvesting, a surplus of food can be saved from waste. Through volunteer work, a variety of foods recovered can provide a wider range of nutrients for clients’ diets; increasing the fresh produce available in addition to the typical nonperishable canned or boxed goods. Of course, not all food that is lost is suitable for consumption, therefore sorting and assessment of donated or recovered foods is necessary to maintain safety and quality (Kantor 1997).

Receiving Donations

Upon receipt of food donations, banks and pantries do not necessarily have full knowledge of or access to how that food was handled or prepared. Food donations vary widely from ready-to-eat or shelf stable foods to more perishable fresh produce. These variables complicate the sorting and confirmation that a food product is safe for consumption. A variety of bacteria, viruses, and parasites can grow in food if the pH, temperature, and nutrient availability are favorable.

There are many points before the collection and recovery of foods that may play a crucial role in whether or not a food is contaminated with illness causing bacteria. Lack of refrigerator space or improperly stored prepared foods are subject to time/temperature abuse. Dented cans, infested dry goods, and improperly packaged foods may further complicate this issue. There are several common foodborne diseases that can affect large populations, such as food bank clients. Potentially hazardous foods accepted at food banks may include meats, eggs, dairy products, cooked rice, sauces and gravies, cream filled pastries and pies, and soups.

Best Practices for Donations:

  • Be sure that all donated products comply with food bank procurement standards established by Feeding America, a national coalition of food banks with member donation centers across the country.
  • Comply with state regulations – Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Guidelines for Accepting and Serving Donating Foods.
  • Check with your local food bank organization for additional donation guidelines and capacity to accept raw agricultural products, especially those which may require refrigeration, etc.

Feeding America Donation Guidelines: Food banks in the Feeding America national network adhere to the same guidelines that grocery retailers, food manufacturers and restaurants must follow. If you are donating products other than raw, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, be sure to check with your local health department to identify any appropriate licenses, labels and handling practices that your products require.

Feeding America donation guidelines primarily govern products such as:

  • meats,
  • dairy,
  • eggs,
  • value-added fruits and vegetables (jams and canned products), and
  • the environment where the product was processed, such as a commercial kitchen.

The following four regulatory guidelines are used by Feeding America to ensure that products donated to food banks are safe for the consumer:

1)   The Current Good Manufacturing Practices for the Manufacturing, Processing, and Packaging, or Handling Human Food developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) describe the methods, equipment, facilities, and controls for producing processed food.
2)   Model Salvage Code developed by FDA and the Association of Food and Drug Officials (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2011) covers reconditioned food products (surplus food from restaurants and dining facilities).
3)   Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 2011) covers food adulteration such as additives (food coloring).
4)   Fair Packaging and Labeling Act (Federal Trade Commission, 2011) covers labeling information, such as:

  • identity of the product,
  • name and place of business of the manufacturer, packer, or distributor, and
  • net quantity of contents

Food and grocery products that are donated to Feeding America are carefully handled and tracked throughout the distribution process, so that product retrieval is possible in the event of a recall. To learn more about donating and food safety, contact Feeding America at

State regulations: the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment also has guidelines for accepting and serving donated foods.

1)    “Food shall be in sound condition free from spoilage or contamination and shall be safe for human consumption.”
2)    “Food shall be obtained from approved sources that comply with the applicable laws relating to food and food labeling. Food prepared in a private home shall not be used or offered for sale.” Raw produce received from home gardens would be allowable as long as the produce is washed prior to preparation or service.
3)     “At all times, including while being stored, prepared, displayed, dispensed, packaged, or transported, food shall be protected from cross-contamination between foods and from potential contamination…”
4)    “The temperature of potentially hazardous foods shall be 41°F or below or 135°F or above, at all times…”

Local food bank regulations: Local food banks may have additional donation guidelines, so check with your local food bank organization for any additional guidelines, and any limits on their capacity to accept raw agricultural products, especially those which may require refrigeration. To find a food bank donation center near you, check the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Food Banks: Colorado.

Sorting and Evaluating Foods

The general risk for foodborne illness can be mitigated through a diligent assessment and sorting process. A food history should be taken at the time of large donations, including preparation and storage methods, as well as the donator’s contact information. For example:

  • First, any obviously damaged packages should be discarded. This includes products with tears, bottles with safety seals popped, opened jars, leaking containers, stained paper or cardboard, rodent holes or droppings, products with missing or open seals, and unlabeled items. Swollen, severely dented, or leaking cans should be discarded.
  • Unpasteurized dairy products, ungraded eggs, and home canned foods of any kind should not be accepted.
  • Leftover foods from a patrons’ table or potentially hazardous prepared home foods cannot be accepted.
  • Potentially hazardous foods that were not stored below 41°F or above 140°F must be discarded.
  • Any product with unusual product separation, discoloration, or foreign objects should be discarded. Any discarded foods should be completely destroyed by pouring foods out of their containers into a trash bag, dousing with bleach, or mixing with soap (Greater Boston Food Bank 2006, Montana 2003, Food Safety Works 2006).

Dating and Storage of Donated Foods

Food dates on packaging can provide a great amount of information regarding the safety of the particular food:

  • A ‘sell-by’ date indicates how long the product can be displayed for sale.
  • A ‘best if used by’ date is recommended for the best flavor or quality.
  • The ‘use-by’ date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality.

None of these printed dates specifically target food safety concerns, however if the product expires during home storage and proper handling was utilized, the shelf life can be extended (Montana 2003).

Proper storage of foods can help maintain freshness and quality:

  • The first-in, first-out system should be used to distribute foods to customers.
  • All food should be properly labeled with the product, quantity, expiration date, and date received (Food Safety Works 2006).
  • The Food Marketing Institute has developed an online tool for determining food storage times, location (freezer, refrigerator), and other special concerns. This easy to use tool can help employees and volunteers assess food safety issues and properly store foods (Food Keeper).

Food Recalls

An accurate inventory can help identify and remove recalled items from food bank shelves before harmful product is received by the consumer. Known recall lists can be used to check donated items before they are even stored or redistributed. Food recalls are particularly difficult to manage in food banks. Food items are from a wide range of sources and differ greatly in ingredients. Volunteers and employees must be available to sort and discard recalled food in the event of a recall. The recent peanut butter outbreak is one example of the widespread recall that a single contaminated ingredient can cause. The outbreak, which sickened 550 people, killed eight people and affected 43 states, eventually leading to one of the largest recalls in U.S. history. Peanut butter produced by the Peanut Corporation of America was found in many common, shelf stable products that often turn up at food banks. From cookies to protein bars, millions of pounds of food at banks and pantries had to be discarded.

Related Links:

  • Aleccia, J. Peanut recall a headache for food banks, too. MSNBC. Accessed on April 6, 2010.
  • Bad Bug Book. US Food and Drug Administration,
  • Colorado State University Extension. Safe Food Handler Training for Food Bank Member Agencies. Training Handout: Food Safety Works. 2006.
  • Cooper, J. Partnerships for a Change. Canadian Grocer. 1997 3(9):13-17.
  • Dean et al. Improved Knowledge and Adoption of Recommended Food Safety Practices by Food Recovery Agency Personnel and Volunteers Participating in the Serving Food Safely Program. Journal of Extension. August 2008. 46(4).
  • Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture. Excerpts from the Ecologist, Oct/Nov/Dec 2002.
  • Food Bank of the Rockies. Hunger Facts,
  • Food Keeper. Food Marketing Institute. Accessed on April 11, 2010.
  • Greger, J. Assessment of Food Pantries As Sources of Food and of Information on Public Assistance Programs. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2001. 101(9).
  • Kantor, L, Lipton, K, Manchester, A, Oliveira, V. Estimating and Addressing America’s Food Losses. Food Review 1997; 20(1).
  • Kendall et al. Food handling behaviors of special importance for pregnant women, infants and young children, the elderly, and immuno-compromised people. Journal of the American Dietetic Association. 2003. 103(12):1646-1649.
  • Montana Department of Health. Food Safety Guidelines for Onsite Feeding Locations, Food Shelves, and Food Banks. 2003. Accessed on April 6, 2010.
  • Teron, A, Tarasuk, V. Charitable Food Assistance: What are Food Bank Users Receiving? Canadian Journal of Public Health 1999; 90(6):382-385


  • Gretchen Wall, MS Student, Marisa Bunning, PhD, Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, Colorado State University Extension.