NC State Extension Publications

Direct to Food Banks

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Feeding the Carolinas has a Farm to Food Bank director who works to connect food banks with growers around the state. The Farm to Food Bank program aims to collect and distribute healthy but unmarketable produce from North Carolina farms to regional food banks. The Farm to Food Bank program can handle a wide range of donations, from a small bin to a whole tractor-trailer load of produce that is unsellable, distressed, blemished, misshapen, or simply excess. The Farm to Food Bank program has access to a fleet of trucks, as well as warehouses and refrigeration, to facilitate the safe and efficient distribution of food across the state. The director of the Farm to Food Bank program works directly with growers to help identify a food bank that can accept their donations; the director also coordinates between several food banks and the Feeding America network. This program sources both shelf-stable and more perishable items, including potatoes, sweet potatoes, apples, onions, cabbage, squash, melons, cucumbers, carrots, and peppers.

At the food bank level, resource managers procure food from local farms, as well as from grocery stores and wholesalers. Most food bank resource managers have developed relationships with owners of large-scale farms and packhouses over several years to procure donations of produce, but they also work with growers who have small to mid-sized farms. To make connections with growers, resource managers may attend conferences and agricultural events. Traditionally, most donations are of harvested but unsellable produce or produce that was rejected by a distributor; both types of donations can help to reduce farmers’ landfill fees. Today, food banks are increasingly working with farmers to harvest excess produce that would otherwise stay in the field. Typically, food banks provide transportation to pick up donations; if needed, they can also provide pallets, bins, and boxes for donations. Food banks operate as nonprofits under tight budgetary constraints, and therefore rely heavily on zero-cost donated product; however, if feasible, food banks may be able to pay a minimal fee, referred to as “pick and pack” or “taken back out” fees, for the labor to pick “seconds” (unharvested produce in the field).

Some farmers are hesitant to donate due to liability concerns related to donations, as well as food safety and liability issues with having volunteers in their fields. They may also hesitate to donate due to the costs of labor or supplies required to move seconds from the field to food banks. Many farmers are also concerned with maintaining the end quality of their products and want to make sure that they’re donated in a timely manner to ensure freshness. The Farm to Food Bank director, resource managers, and their teams at regional food banks can mobilize their network of refrigerated trucks and warehouses to maintain the quality of donated products. They can also provide resources regarding liability concerns and tax credits and deductions. The tax credit structure for donations changed in 2016, making it easier for growers to receive a tax credit, and there is a law that protects the liability of growers who donate. More information about these topics is included below.

Direct to Food Pantries

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If growers with smaller farms contact food banks hoping to donate, they are typically connected with a nearby partner agency in order to cut down on transportation and redistribution. Donations from community gardens and home gardens can also be directed to food pantries. Food resource managers at food banks can help identify nearby partner agencies that can handle the amount and type of fresh produce that is donated. Collaborating closely with a food pantry that receives donations of local food can increase the likelihood that the donated food is eaten. For example, if you can get a better idea of what types of products clients would like to eat, you can better coordinate with local gardeners to grow and donate preferred items. Consider working with food pantries in your county to survey their clients about their preferred produce varieties. Another way to improve the utilization of donated food is to provide taste tests of easy recipes that use donated food. It is helpful to use recipes that don’t require a lot of preparation since many families who are food insecure may lack kitchen equipment. Please note that N.C. Cooperative Extension does not recommend donating home-canned products to food banks or food pantries due to food safety concerns.

A food bank warehouse with boxes of produce.

A food bank warehouse with boxes of produce.

How Cooperative Extension Can Be Involved

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  • Event Invitations. One way to help facilitate connections between growers and the network of food banks in North Carolina is to invite resource managers from regional food banks and the director of the Farm to Food Bank program to grower events, conferences, and meetings.
  • Liability and Tax Credit Information. Cooperative Extension can also help farmers with excess produce to understand their options for donation, tell them about liability laws, and update them about tax credit information.
  • Attending Partner Agency Meetings. Many food banks host multicounty, quarterly meetings to provide information and food safety training to their partner agencies, which include food pantries, soup kitchens, and other food security organizations. These quarterly meetings, sometimes referred to as “talking councils” or “member agency councils,” can be a great way to connect with food pantries in your region, letting them know what type of resources you have to offer through Cooperative Extension. You can provide them with any training or connections that can help them source and provide healthy food to their clients.
  • Nutrition Education, Taste Tests, and Food Safety. A great way to support the use of donated produce is to partner with Cooperative Extension nutrition education programs, such as the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program–Education (SNAP-Ed). Family and Consumer Science agents and Extension Master Food Volunteers can advise food pantries about food safety, nutrition, cooking, and how to best set up the pantry to increase healthy food options, such as the client choice model. Client choice food pantries are set up so that clients can choose the items that they receive, rather than be given a pre-determined box of food; resources on this topic are available through SNAP-Ed. Recipe cards that are designed specifically for low-resource audiences are also available for FCS agents and EFNEP PAs to use as part of taste tests and classes with food pantry clients.

Food Donation Tax Incentives

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The 2016 federal PATH Act improved tax incentives for food donation. For farmers, it enhances the benefits of donating food by establishing a protocol for determining the fair market value of the donated product based on the price of similar sold products. This means that products that will not be sold by farmers due to overproduction or because they do not meet market standards (due to size or appearance) can be valued at the same price as similar products that were moved to market.

The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act

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Under the 1996 Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Act, donors such as farmers and gleaners who give food and grocery products to nonprofit organizations are protected from liability. This federal law protects donors from civil and criminal liability in the event that a product donated in good faith causes harm to a recipient. This law was passed to encourage the donation of food to nonprofits for the distribution to individuals in need.


Assistant Professor and Local Foods Extension Specialist
Agricultural and Human Sciences
Master's Degree Student, Physician Assistant Studies
East Carolina University

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Publication date: Nov. 8, 2017

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