Think twice before you donate junk food or ramen to your local food bank. These foods and other items are healthier and more impactful.

Making donations to food banks and kitchens can be very impactful, especially given that nearly 16 million U.S. households are currently struggling with food insecurity.  But the foods you choose make a huge difference.

“We get a lot of cookies and pastries,” says Maria Silva, a registered dietitian nutritionist who manages the Family Wellness Program at the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Phoenix, a nonprofit that manages charity dining rooms and food boxes for the homeless and working poor, among many other services. “We’re grateful for people thinking of us and these are delicious, but they’re not nutritionally dense.”

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That's why it's important to consider the nutritional value of the food you’re donating. Silva says food pantries and meal centers like the Society of St. Vincent de Paul often get junk food, including sweets (bags of Halloween candy are big in the fall), packs of high-sodium instant ramen, and sugary cereals. While these donations come with the best intentions, they don’t help food banks give recipients complete, healthy meals—a crucial goal. Diet-related diseases like diabetes and high blood pressure are common among the working poor and homeless, and Feeding America estimates that more than half of the households it serves have one member with high blood pressure.

We asked Silva—who participated in a recent community discussion about food insecurity in Phoenix, as part of Real Simple’s partnership with Walmart, Feeding America, Nextdoor, and Neighbor’s Table—what foods and other items she recommends giving. It’s always a good idea to ask your local food bank (find yours here) what they need most, but any of these seven items should be well-received.

1. Beans and Grains

Silva says these foods are reliable, nutritious choices for donations because they can be purchased in bulk for less money, and food pantries and kitchens can use them a number of ways. Ask your local pantry what format (dried, canned) they need right now, but generally you can’t go wrong with either. Silva likes to recommend donating pre-cooked rice packets (like Uncle Ben’s Ready Rice), because they’re easy for families to prepare and don’t require cooking skills, pots, or water.

2. Canned Vegetables and Fruits

“While it would be great to have fresh vegetables and fruits at our pantry, these require storage, and it’s more expensive for the food bank to run fridges and freezers,” Silva says. That’s why she advises people donate canned fruits and vegetables. Though these products get a bad rap for being less healthy than fresh produce, they don’t have to be. Plus, those who are homeless or having trouble affording their utility bills can usually better use canned fruits and vegetables over fresh produce, as well. Look for low-sodium vegetables (green beans are great), as well as fruit packed in water, not sugar syrup.

3. Canned Protein

As with fruits and vegetables, hen it comes to donating some kind of protein to pantries, the more shelf-stable it is, the better. That’s why Silva says canned proteins—tuna and seafood, chicken—are often in demand. “People tend to think, ‘Canned is not good for you,’” Silva says. “But when you’re hungry, it’s better to have a tuna sandwich than a donut.”

4. Peanut Butter

Peanut butter is a quick, cheap source of protein that can sit on a shelf for months, making it another great pick for donations. Silva recommends clients make peanut butter sandwiches with a piece of fresh fruit or a vegetable for a complete meal that requires little to no cooking. 

5. Bottled Water

In Phoenix, Silva said bottled water is always needed because the temperatures climb very high and noted that elderly people and children get dehydrated easily. Ask your pantry if they can also use cases of water bottles. “Cases of water which are just $2-3, can easily be taken to people’s homes and distributed in our dining rooms,” Silva says.

6. Toiletries

Not all great donations to food banks need to be food-related, either. Toiletry donations can really help people in need, especially if your local food bank also provides places for people to shower or is affiliated with a homeless shelter. Mini hotel shampoos and body washes are especially convenient. Silva’s organization asks for old pill bottles, which are then filled with soap and shampoo from full-sized bottles. Sanitary pads, tampons, and diapers (for kids of all ages and adults) are a big help for families, too. “These can get expensive,” Silva says.

7. Your Time

Giving physical and monetary donations are great, but Silva says any time you can spare is always appreciated. “Being able to go somewhere and connect to other people really makes a difference,” she says.

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