How to volunteer at a food pantry during the holidays

Scout Swonger of Food Bank of Western Massachusetts
December 19, 2023
by Paul Morello

Want to roll up your sleeves during the holiday season and do some volunteering with your family – but you’re not sure what to do or where to start? We’ve got you covered! As food banks find new ways to keep food on the table for people in response to the pandemic, there are plenty of opportunities to volunteer while staying safe. It’s a great way to make an impact as a family, feel good about doing good, and start a new tradition!

1. Contact your local food bank for holiday volunteering opportunities
Don’t know if there are food programs in your neighborhood? Your local food bank probably will. They should be able to tell you which local food pantries and food programs need volunteers. Once you know who to contact, give them a call! Around the holidays, volunteer slots fill up fast so don’t wait to reach out.

2. Find the best time for your family
At the end of the year, there are usually more volunteer opportunities to pack meals for families and distribute food in your community. Food programs operate in the morning, afternoon, and evening. If you sign up early, you shouldn’t have a problem finding a time that fits your family’s schedule. And, if one program’s schedule doesn’t work for you, try getting in touch with another food program in your area.

3. Great! I’m signed up to volunteer at a food pantry. What will my family do?
What are my options?
Every volunteer experience at a food program is different, but you’ll probably be doing one of a few things:

  • Distributing food to your neighbors: This could including packing food boxes and loading them into cars at a drive-through pantry or mobile pantry, helping with check-in and answering visitor questions, and keeping food well-stocked.
  • Assisting with holiday meals: The holidays may look a little different this year as food pantries and food banks help to keep everyone safe. Some food pantries are delivering holiday meals and will need help packing meal kits and loading delivery trucks. Some are providing carry-out meals at mobile or drive-through pantries and need help loading visitors’ cars. Those offering hot holiday meal services may host them outdoors or as carry-out only events.
  • Assembling food donations: Some food pantries provide visitors with a bag of groceries or pre-packed meal kits for easier pickup. You might be sorting and checking food donations for quality and filling bags with groceries such as canned food, meat and produce.
  • Delivering meals to your neighbors: You can help your most vulnerable neighbors get a holiday meal by delivering ready-to-eat plates or meal kits in your community. Volunteer delivery drivers deliver meals along a specified route and may also help conduct wellness checks for seniors and people living with disabilities or chronic diseases.
  • Anything else! Restocking shelves, helping direct traffic at a drive-thru distribution, or even sweeping – volunteers make pantries run smoothly.

The health and safety of volunteers, staff, and visitors are food banks’ top priority, so check with your local food bank to learn about what safety measures you can take. Many food banks and food pantries require volunteers to maintain social distance, wash hands frequently, and wear proper face coverings or masks.

4. I want to help from home. What are my options?
If you are looking to volunteer remotely, there are a few options your local food bank may offer:

  • Virtual volunteering: Some food banks have moved their volunteer shifts online. This could include calling donors to thank them for their contributions, helping to spread the word on social media, or lending your skills on a specific project. Check with your local food bank or pantry to find out how you can help spread the word about hunger.
  • Fundraising on behalf of Feeding America or your local food bank: A virtual food drive is a fundraiser that happens 100% online, helping food banks save resources they would spend collecting, sorting, and storing food from traditional food drives and instead put funds into better serving their communities.
  • Have fun while giving back at home: From writing thank you cards to gratitude journals, there are plenty of ways to keep kids occupied at home, while focusing on helping our neighbors

5. Loved your experience? Come back next holiday season…or in a few months
Make volunteering at a food program during the holidays your tradition! And, remember that the need doesn’t end when the holidays are over. As more people than ever turn to food banks because of the pandemic, your local pantry needs volunteers throughout the year, so don’t be shy and volunteer year-round! Sign Feeding America’s volunteer pledge to get started, and then don’t wait to book your next volunteer time!

Pledge to support your food bank by volunteering

Food banks, food pantries, and meal programs in the Feeding America network are continuing to do what they do best - provide meals to people in need. Volunteers are critical to providing food to everyone during this difficult time.

6. Missed out on volunteering this year? You can always give.
From spending time with family to virtual holiday parties, time is tight during the holidays. If you can’t fit in volunteering, you can still make an impact on hunger! Make a gift now and your support will help ensure our neighbors facing hunger across the country will start the year with the food they need to thrive.