Food insecurity spikes at certain points in the year, but there’s action you can take to reduce food insecurity and hunger in your community. 

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You probably already donate to food banks at Thanksgiving and Christmas, or take part in drives to raise funds for food pantries and shelters in your area during the holidays. But once the holiday drives end, food donations may slip to the back of your mind—and you’re not the only one.

This time of year marks a critical time for food banks and pantries, experts say: Donations begin to drop off in April, but demand unfortunately doesn’t. “Giving is extremely strong during the holidays and can decline during spring and summer, the time when we most need the support,” said Kay Carter, CEO of Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina, based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Increasing donations and awareness in the spring and summer months means providing much-needed aid to the 15.6 million U.S. households that suffer from food insecurity, according to 2016 data (the most recent available) from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Food insecurity looks different for each of these households: It may mean being forced to pick between spending money at the grocery store or spending it on necessities such as electricity or water; it may mean relying on school lunch programs to feed your children at least one meal a day, not knowing if you’ll be able to provide food for the other two meals.

In an effort to help fight food insecurity—especially in spring and summer—Real Simple has partnered with Walmart, Feeding America, private neighborhood social network Nextdoor, and Neighbor’s Table to help bring communities together around this important issue.

Through events in communities in Charlotte, North Carolina; Phoenix, Arizona; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Virginia Beach, Virginia; and Orlando, Florida, this coalition is working to spark conversations geared toward ending food insecurity held over communal meals at long, welcoming tables provided by Neighbor’s Table.

Learn more about Neighbor's Table, and how it brings communities together:

These partnership dinners welcome community leaders and members, city officials, local chefs, food bank representatives, and more to a conversation revolving around how they can work together to combat food insecurity locally. After the meal and conversation, the table remains as a gift from Neighbor’s Table and as a space for community members to gather for further discussions.

“People are hungry all year round, unfortunately,” says Cathy Davis, Chief Marketing & Communication Officer at Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization. “It really is about driving awareness in this key period and keeping hunger top-of-mind all year.”

Want to help? Here are a few simple steps you can take to have a serious impact on families struggling with food insecurity in your neighborhood.

1. Before you donate, ask your local food bank what they need most.

No one knows what food insecure families in your community need most better than the local food bank. Most are in need of items such as peanut butter, beans, cereal, and fruits and vegetables, but there may be more specific needs, too: You won’t know until you ask. You can find your nearest food bank using Feeding America’s tool.

2. Take part in national campaigns to help fight hunger.

Walmart has led the Fight Hunger. Spark Change. campaign each year since 2014, bringing some of the nation’s leading food companies together with Walmart’s enormous customer base in a nationwide effort to reduce hunger. In 2017, the month-long campaign donated the equivalent of approximately 218 million meals to Feeding America's network, which serves every county in the U.S. The 2018 campaign kicks off April 2—see how you can contribute at wm8.walmart.com/Hunger.

3. Donate fresh foods as often as you can, instead of canned ones.

Don’t just dump the dusty cans from the back of your pantry on food banks. If you can’t eat it, the families they’re helping can’t, either. Feeding America and its extensive network are focusing on providing fresh, nutritious foods as much as possible: Of the 5 billion pounds of food the Feeding America network distributed last year, 25 percent was produce, according to Davis.

“People living in poverty often struggle to afford healthy foods like fresh produce, meat, and dairy products,” Carter said. “While the percentage can vary from food bank to food bank, at Second Harvest Food Bank of Metrolina in Charlotte, over 35 percent of the 54 million pounds we distribute annually is fresh produce, meat, and dairy. These items are needed for a healthy diet but often are out of reach for families and seniors living near or below the poverty level.”

Carter says she encourages community members to donate these items, and to plant extra rows in their produce gardens (if they have them) with the intent of donating those foods. Any fresh donation—even a bag of oranges you picked up on your weekly grocery trip—helps.

4. Consider donating money to food banks, too.

Food banks can turn a small donation of money into large quantities of food—more than they’d raise in a traditional food drive. For example, members of the Feeding America food bank network can work through the network and with local distributors to obtain large quantities of produce and other foods for far less than retail price, stretching dollar donations much further than they’re able to stretch food donations.

5. Volunteer if you have a little time to spare.

Equally important to donating items and funds is donating time. Food banks, pantries, meal programs, and other distribution centers can’t help families in need without manpower from community volunteers.

6. Raise awareness about food insecurity.

Talk to your family, your friends, your coworkers, and your neighbors about the year-round challenges food-insecure families face (spread the message on social media, too!). Encourage them to donate, spread the word, volunteer, and otherwise get involved as much as possible—every positive action helps.

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