12/10/2009 10:00 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

In Good Taste: Donating to Those in Need

At this holiday season, even one in which money is tight for most of us, many Americans are generous in giving to those in greatest need. Donations to homeless shelters, the Salvation Army and food pantries pick up during a time when many of us are decorating our own homes and shopping for gifts for family and friends. It truly is a season of giving and, luckily, the most needy among us benefit from this annual outpouring of altruism.

Each year around Thanksgiving I've always rummaged around in my pantry to see which cans or bags of food I've left unused and which could be donated to the Arlington Food Assistance Center (AFAC), our local food pantry. AFAC's base of clients has grown exponentially with our nation's depressed economy and so I am happy to donate food. It has always made me feel virtuous to fill bags with cans of black beans that were bought to go in chili I never made, or cans of coconut milk bought for a recipe that has since been lost. I never gave much thought to what I was putting in the bags - only to the fact that I was filling bags with food for needy neighbors.

That was until I went to an AFAC Board meeting last Saturday. As snow swirled around outside the cozy borrowed conference room where we met, I learned a lot more about the families who receive food from this active food pantry. Many of them are Hispanic. Some are from Eastern Europe. Coconut milk? Apparently they are not cooking from the same recipes I clip. Canned black beans? More expensive and less useful to low-income families who can extend a bag of dried beans much farther.

I learned that boxes of cereal - particularly the healthy, less sugary varieties - are in great demand because they are expensive and cross many cultural divides. I learned that donating to a food pantry is more about what people in need actually need and less about what I have lying around on my kitchen shelves. My system in the past is akin to giving my child gifts that I find lying around the garage rather than figuring out what she really wants. I would never do that to someone I care about. And the season of giving is also about caring, not just cleaning out my cupboards.

Now that I know, I am heading to my local grocery store to buy bags of dried beans and boxes of cereal. I read recently that one in four children in America go hungry each night. While there is no easy fix for that, I can't stand the thought of a hungry child staring in dismay at a can of coconut milk. As each of us shops for our own families this holiday season, let's pick up some extras for those without the means to shop. And let's think about which items would bring them joy. Happy Holidays!