Healthiest foods to donate to food banks

In a small building tucked behind St. Bartholomew's Episcopal Church on Lavista Road, Larry Gary is shopping for groceries.

The Air Force veteran has been coming to the Toco Hills Community Alliance's food pantry for about 7 years now, and he loves being able to choose his own food.

The pantry serves about 75 clients a day, who shop with a volunteer and pick from piles of fresh fruit and vegetables, eggs and meat supplied by the Atlanta Community Food Bank and local grocery stores.

"You can come in with your head up, and you can leave with your head up,” Gary says.

But in this season of giving, what kinds of foods make the best donations?

Joy Goetz, a registered dietitian and manager of The Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Nutrition and Wellness Program, teaches classes on how to use foods pantry items in healthy, nutritious recipes.

"We really need shelf-stable items,” Goetz says.  “Healthy, shelf-stable items.”

She really loves foods that can multitask, like canned tomatoes.

"There is so much you can do with diced tomatoes, to tomato sauces, from just making spaghetti to incorporating that into a soup of casserole,” she says.

Instead of donating white rice or plain pasta, Goetz says go for high-fiber whole grains, like oatmeal, brown rice and whole grain cereal.

Soup is also good donation choice, but it can be high in salt.

"So (choose) any kind of soup that has less salt added to it,” she says.  “I like to look on the back of the label."

If you prefer to donate canned vegetables, choose those with labels that read "no added salt" or "low salt."

For canned fruit, Goetz recommends fruit packed in water or juice, not sugary syrup.

And, for fiber and protein, beans are a great donation.

You can donate either dried beans, like pinto beans, which are naturally sodium free, or no-salt-added canned beans, like black beans.

Peanut butter, a favorite with kids, is also a great item to donate.

She prefers natural peanut butters without added saturated fats.

Goetz says the Food Bank can’t accept glass jars, because they can shatter, but they can accept foods in sealed plastic packaging.

Bottom line, Goetz says, give what you would love to eat.

"Just whatever you're buying for your family, just get one more,” she says.