What Donations Soup Kitchens Really Need

Every year, the Thanksgiving holiday inspires a season of gratitude and charity in America. Churches, offices, firehouses, and school districts across the country open food drives to collect non-perishable items to support food pantries and Thanksgiving meals.

In 2016, 41 million people, including 13 million children struggled with hunger in America. While households with children are more likely to be food insecure, the rate of hunger among seniors (aged 60+) has increased since 2001 to 5 million. Particularly during the Thanksgiving season, many Americans donate food items as a way to give back to the community. But not all donations are equally in demand.

Glass jars are not encouraged; boxes and cans are best. “It’s helpful when the can has a pop top as opposed to needing a can opener,” said Dana Lopez, Director & Marketing & Communications of the Mary Brennan INN (Interfaith Nutrition Network), the largest private network of soup kitchens homeless shelters on Long Island. “We’ll take anything but it does help.” Monday to Friday through the year, guests to the Hempstead, Long Island facility can receive a hot, nutritious meal and additional services such as clothes, supplies, and a hot shower.

Think volume over variety. “A quantity of just one type of item is helpful – for instance 10 cans of green beans instead of 10 assorted canned vegetables,” encouraged David P. Jones, President & CEO of The Bowery Mission. “That way we are giving out the same items in our pantry and community outreach and can cook and serve the same food for the community.” Last year, The Bowery Mission, located on the Bowery, provided more than 505,000 warm meals to the hungry and homeless in the New York Metro Area.

This year to make the biggest impact, consider donating items that are in most need at food pantries for Thanksgiving and general pantry shelves.

For the Thanksgiving Meal
“The need for food always increases at Thanksgiving as we prepare to serve 10,000 meals to the hungry and homeless during Thanksgiving week alone.  Many come to our Red Doors [at The Bowery Mission] who haven’t eaten a real meal in days”, said David P. Jones. Help support Thanksgiving itself with the following important items:

  • Box or canned macaroni & cheese
  • Instant mashed potatoes
  • Canned vegetables (yams, corn, or green beans)
  • Canned cranberry sauce
  • Canned soup (most popular is chicken noodle)
  • Canned fruit
  • Box or canned chicken broth
  • Box of tea bags
  • Canned gravy or powdered gravy packets

“Gravy is a big one,” added Dana Lopez.

Typically, soup kitchens and pantry guests are in most need of non-perishable items but many, like the Mary Brennan Inn, take donations of frozen turkeys or hams for their annual full Thanksgiving meal and for distribution with a bag of side items.

Protein-Packed Foods
Not surprisingly protein-packed items are in high demand at food pantries. Proteins provide essential amino acids and lasting energy. To replenish the most popular pantry items, opt for:

  • Canned tuna
  • Canned salmon
  • Peanut butter
  • Canned meats (spam, chicken)
  • Canned beans (black, kidney, great northern – all kinds except garbanzo)

"Our neighbors in need do not have assurance of their next meal, so protein-rich food is important in helping our guests feel full for longer, " explains Rebecca Lee, Director of Marketing & Communications of New York City Rescue Mission. Serving the homeless for 143 years, the NYCRM is the oldest rescue mission in the United States.

Kid-Friendly and Baby Items
Adults are not the only guests at soup kitchens. Help a whole family by selecting the following items:

  • Juice boxes
  • Box or canned macaroni & cheese
  • Canned spaghetti such as Spaghetti O’s
  • Snacks (crackers, cookies, chips, fruit snacks)
  • Powdered baby formula
  • Baby cereal
  • Baby food

“We are always looking for baby food, ” said Dana Lopez. “It’s okay if it’s glass.”

Breakfast Items
Breakfast is not often considered in donation bags. “We don’t very often get breakfast food,” noted Dana Lopez. Gift the most important meal of the day by donating:

  • Boxed cereal
  • Granola bars
  • Cereal bars
  • Hot cereals such as Cream of Wheat
  • Pancake mix and syrup
  • Powdered milk

"Hearty breakfasts from our kitchen can be vital to our guests' survival," added Rebecca Lee. Many soup kitchens, like the New York City Rescue Mission serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

Condiments & spices
Rarely donated, condiments and spices are essential to meals prepared and eaten onsite at soup kitchens. “We desperately need these!” shared David P. Jones.

  • Oil (olive, vegetable, canola)
  • BBQ sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Mustard
  • Mayonnaise
  • Balsamic vinegar

Herbs & spices (garlic powder, onion powder, curry powder, rosemary, oregano, parsley paprika, cumin, chili powder, cinnamon)

Food donations are vital to fully serve the needs of the local community.  “We are grateful for the compassion and generosity of New Yorkers who make these meals possible and share the joy of the holidays with those who need it most,” said David P. Jones. "The support of our community is crucial, as we help our guests achieve restoration and a return to self-sufficiency, " added Rebecca Lee.

Donate in your local community or check out:

The Bowery Mission | 227 Bowery New York NY 10002 | (212) 674-3456
Donations may be dropped off 24 hours a day. Founded in 1879, The Bowery Mission, located on the Bowery, offers a second chance to men and women overcoming homelessness, trauma, addiction and abuse, and gives a positive first chance to children before they get caught in the cycle of poverty. Meals are served 365 day for breakfast at 8am, lunch at 1pm, and dinner at 6pm.

The Mary Brennan INN | 100 Madison Avenue Hempstead NY 11550 | (516) 486-6243
Donations can be dropped off Monday through Friday, 9-11am and 2-4pm. The INN is the largest soup kitchen on Long Island, serving anywhere from 300-500 guests per day. The kitchen serves lunch weekdays 11:30am-1:30pm. Next door to the Mary Brennan INN, is The Center for Transformative Change with resource center for social services (assist guest beyond basic needs – computer lab, language help, help with housing) and a free clothing boutique.

The New York City Rescue Mission | 90 Lafayette Street New York NY 10013 | (212) 226-6214
Donations can be dropped off on-site 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The NYCRM serves approximately 600 hot, nutritious meals a day, and opens a food pantry to the local community once a month. In 2016, the NYCRM served 190,820 meals, and distributed 58,208 food pantry bags to hungry New Yorkers.

Find a local food bank near you by visiting Feeding America.