During a pandemic, think twice before cleaning out your pantry

The food bank said nonperishable pantry foods are the best items to donate.  (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)
The food bank said nonperishable pantry foods are the best items to donate. (Jenni Girtman for Atlanta Journal Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Atlanta food bank urges people to donate food despite "best by" date

We’ve all been there: A box or can of food sitting in your pantry will soon pass its “use by,” “best by” or “sell by” date. Do you throw it out? Eat it? What do these dates even mean?

The Atlanta Community Food Bank has a solution that might help the food insecurity problem in metro Atlanta: Donate it.

Food bank CEO Kyle Waide said many Atlantans may be cleaning out their pantries after stocking up early in the pandemic. Many nonperishable foods, he said, are still safe to eat past the product date, but are often thrown away. Instead, the food bank is encouraging residents to donate the food to people in need.

ExploreAs pandemic lingers, fears grow that more families forced to go hungry

“Our suspicion is that there is a lot of excess supply in people’s pantries,” Waide said. “We know the need in our community continues to be unprecedented. We’re gonna need all the food we can get to meet that need.”

Food bank staff and volunteers sort through donated food and are trained to read product labels to ensure only safe food is distributed.

Many people incorrectly think the dates on food packaging signal the last day it is safe to eat, the food bank said. Instead, they are often decided by the food companies to signal the optimal freshness of a product. Canned goods can last for years, and unopened dry goods like cereal and pasta are usually still good well past the date on the box.

Here are some common labels you often see and what they mean:

  • “Best By/Before” date indicates when a product will be of best flavor or quality. It is not a safety date.
  • “Sell By” date tells the store how long to display the product for sale for inventory management.
  • “Use By” date is the last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. It is not a safety date except for when used on infant formula or medications.

Residents can donate food by dropping it off at a local pantry (a full list and map of the food bank’s partners is available online at acfb.org) or at the food bank’s headquarters in East Point, where a drive-in donation area is set up to reduce contact. Waide said the best foods to donate are nonperishable, rather than refrigerated or frozen foods. Avoid bringing cans or boxes that have been dented or damaged.

Long lines at food drives have become a common sight during the pandemic.
Long lines at food drives have become a common sight during the pandemic.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Some of the most needed food at Atlanta Community Food Bank, which services 29 counties in metro Atlanta and North Georgia, are whole grain foods like oatmeal and pasta, shelf-stable milk, high protein foods such as dried beans, canned tuna and natural peanut butter, and vegetables with low sodium and no added salt.

Since the pandemic began, the food bank and local pantries have seen an alarming increase in the number of people in need of food, many attending food drives for the first time. Waide said the food bank increased its food distribution by 54% from April to July, compared to the same four months last year, giving out 36 million pounds of food.

“In many communities, the demand is going to continue to be overwhelming,” he said.