A food bank is a non-profit organization which distributes non-perishable goods and perishable food items to non-profit agencies involved in local emergency food programs. Emergency food programs provide immediate hunger relief to individuals and families who are unable to afford food and receive inadequate government financial assistance from programs such as the Food Stamp Program. Food stamps is the government program whereby households below certain income thresholds are provided monthly food spending credits which can be redeemed at local food stores.
The agencies receiving food from food banks are typically non-profit organizations operated as part of a church, government or community group, and commonly called a "food pantry". A food bank is like the wholesale arm of the food distribution system for those living in poverty, while food pantries are the retail arm that serve people directly with the emergency food. Some food pantries serve only a few families each month, but there are many that provide emergency food support to hundreds of families each month. The need for food bank and food pantry services has been growing in recent years as income has not kept up with rising costs and federal program funding is not tied to inflation.
Food banks receive their food from companies or supermarkets with unsaleable stock, and also from donations from the general public, especially around holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas. In addition, the U.S. government and state governments often contract with food banks to distribute USDA surplus commodities and FEMA food. In addition, food banks who are members of America's Second Harvest, the nation's food bank network organization, are able to take advantage of relationships with major manufacturers. Food banks distribute goods such as canned and boxed dry groceries, fresh produce, frozen foods, bakery products, and some personal hygiene or household cleaning products.
The first food bank was St. Mary's Food Bank, started in 1967 in Phoenix, Arizona. America's Second Harvest represents a network of over 200 food banks across the U.S. While some food banks operate in Canada and Europe, food banks are much more predominant and important in the U.S. in providing efficient resources to support emergency food relief efforts.
Many food banks around the country have employed the use of Virtual Food Drives, originally developed by The North Texas Food Bank and The Aidmatrix Foundation, to make it easy for the public to help their local communities contribute to the hunger relief efforts in their area. many schools are now opening food pantries.