Most people know about food banks and food stamps.
In 2020 alone, the nonprofit Feeding America distributed 7.5 billion pounds of food through its food-bank network, and 19 million households benefited from the federal food stamp program (now officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
But these programs are hardly the only resources that can help you fill your pantry.
If you or someone you know could have trouble paying for groceries — or if you’re simply interested in lowering your grocery bill — consider these tactics for filling your pantry for free.
1. Little free food pantries
You’ve heard of Little Free Libraries? Little free food pantries work the same way: People set up small, weatherproof containers, either on their property or in a public setting, and fill them with free stuff.
In this case, it’s not books but rather nonperishable food and sometimes toiletries and baby or pet items. Anyone is free to choose anything they need. Because the pantries are available 24/7, you can stop by early in the morning or late in the evening — whenever it’s convenient.
Since the free stuff is donated, there’s no guarantee you’ll always get the kind of stuff your household wants to eat. For example, a vegetarian little free food pantry host probably won’t supply canned tuna or chicken. Flexibility is key.
However, it’s likely that not every single pantry-builder in the country is affiliated with these two groups. Be sure to do an online search for “little free pantry” and your city or state.
2. Freecycle and Craigslist
These two have been around for decades, and both have a feast-or-famine reputation: You’re either lucky enough to live where there’s a great group offering great things, or you live in a place where people try to unload some pretty awful stuff. (Fun fact: A guy in Fairbanks, Alaska, advertised free dog poop — “You shovel, you haul.”)
Back in my starving-midlife-student years, I scored some free grub from Freecycle and Craigslist. You might luck out, too.
Sometimes that means fresh produce from people who never should have planted that much zucchini, or whose trees have more plums than any one family could ever eat.
Other times the story might be “Bought a case of these soups at Costco and didn’t like them,” “I quit the Latest Fad Diet, so here are six unopened meal kits” or “This item was mistakenly added to my grocery delivery order.”
While researching for this piece, I saw an offer from a senior citizen who’d received too many items from a food bank and wanted to share the wealth.
A few other items glimpsed recently: all-purpose flour, a gallon of whole milk, Parmesan crisps, potatoes, green beans, infant cereal, applesauce, cooking oil, seasoned salt, sweet potatoes, mayonnaise, spice blends and a jar of Vegemite.
Can you live completely off Freecycle and Craigslist food? Probably not. The point is that some of the foods offered could be good things to add to your pantry. Besides, every dollar you don’t have to spend on mayo or seasoned salt is a dollar you can use for protein and produce at the supermarket.
3. Buy Nothing groups on Facebook
The Buy Nothing Project helps neighbors share with neighbors through Facebook groups. They’re like hyper-local Freecycle groups, organized neighborhood by neighborhood instead of city by city.
As with Freecycle and Craigslist, the goods offered will depend on the people involved.
The Buy Nothing Facebook group to which I belong in Anchorage, Alaska, is rife with food products, from staples to snacks and treats. Sometimes it’s a single item, and other times a big bag or box full of assorted goodies. One woman who was leaving the state gave me three large plastic totes full of baking supplies.
Among other things, my Buy Nothing Facebook group has gifted us pasta, black beans, rice, soup, fresh rhubarb, canned salmon, flour, teabags, protein powder, shredded coconut, some little bags of Cheetos (my niece’s kids were delighted), half a dozen cans of Spam (my partner was delighted), flaxseed, pickling salt, baking powder and yeast.
Generally, you arrange a time for the giver to put the food on the porch or the front steps, and you come to pick it up. You don’t have to communicate in any way except by text and Facebook Messenger, although in my group some friendships have sprung up due to the in-the-neighborhood vibe.
To look for a group in your area, visit the Buy Nothing Project’s “Find Your Group” webpage.
This biblical concept of allowing the poor to collect leftover crops from farmers’ fields has gained new importance as nonprofits work to prevent food waste. Some make lists of where you can get fruit, vegetables or nuts for free; others collect and distribute unused food from markets.
A nonprofit called Food Forward lists gleaning groups in the United States and Canada. Here are a few to get you started:
- Endless Orchard, a project of the nonprofit Fallen Fruit, offers a map of fruit trees located in publicly accessible areas across the U.S. and other countries.
- The nonprofit Falling Fruit also offers a map of edible plants in public areas worldwide. Additionally, its sharing webpage lists local organizations that plant, harvest and share produce.
- Urban Food Forestry links to initiatives in the U.S. and Canada that are devoted to planting, harvesting and mapping of fruit and nut trees in urban areas.
- The nonprofit Village Harvest lists gleaning organizations in select U.S. states.
You could also just knock on someone’s door and ask if they’re going to use all the fruit from that front-yard tree that’s just dripping with apples.
In addition, keep an eye out for where raspberries have jumped a backyard fence, or learn to identify wild greens and mushrooms. (Note: It’s essential to have a field guide to wild edibles, so you don’t wind up eating something that makes you sick.)
5. Dollar stores
Yes, everything’s a buck — but if you play your cards right, you won’t have to pay at all. “The Secret to Getting Dollar Store Items for Free” tells all.
Sometimes, those freebies are food. Recently, I’ve seen free-after-rebate items such as crackers, hot sauce, string or shredded cheese, cereals, frozen entrees, sweeteners and pretzels. (Lots of toiletries and housewares, too, but we’re talking food here.)
Enough for a balanced diet? Of course not. But again, every dollar you don’t spend on sweetener for your morning tea or a cupcake mix for your kiddo’s birthday is a dollar you can use on other groceries you truly need. And when times are really tight, a bowl of cereal for supper is better than nothing at all.
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