19 ways to build your own food bank

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Grocery prices got you down? Fight back by building your own food bank, i.e., a pantry full of staples you bought at rock-bottom prices.

This is not emergency food, mind you, to be saved for the next hurricane or other disaster. The point is to eat from this pantry all along, replenishing when prices are best.

The practice saves you money in several ways:

  •     Getting the best deals means your food dollars go further.
  •     Having the ingredients to throw together a quick meal means less temptation to order in.
  •     You’ll have plenty of fixings for brown-bag lunches.
  •     A deep pantry means less need to run to the store to get just one or two items. (Can you really get out of the store with just a six-ounce can of tomato paste?) This in turn means less wear and tear on the car and less gas used.
  •     If times get tight, you can eat from your cupboard.

What if times are already tight?

That’s OK. You can get going on as little as a dollar.

1. Start small.

Try to get at least one extra item every time you shop. Look for shelf-stable foods like dried fruit, ramen, pasta, peanut butter, tea, coffee and canned beans, vegetables, meat, fish, soup or fruit.

2. Score loss leaders.

Your favorite soup, three for a dollar; pasta for 79 cents a pound; two cans of tuna for a buck — stores offer prices that low to get you in the door because they assume you’ll do all of your shopping there. Be the exception: Take advantage of the best prices and then skedaddle.

Note: Driving 10 miles out of your way to save a quarter obviously doesn’t make sense. Pick your spots.

3. Use coupon sites.

Regional coupon bloggers and national sites like CouponMom.com and AFullCup.com match sales to coupons, many of which you can print out or download to a store loyalty card.


4. Hit the dollar store.

Concerned about recalls of foods produced in China and elsewhere? Buy only U.S.-produced foods. I used to get my Arkansas-grown rice at a Seattle dollar store along with things like pasta, gingersnaps and kosher salt. Food bloggers talk of finding olives, marinated vegetables, frozen tilapia filets and other everyday gourmet foods; if you’re lucky enough to live near a 99¢ Only store, you can get fresh produce too.

Read more: 3 great deals at the dollar store

5. Go gleaning.

Ask around for unused produce, fruit or nuts; some gardeners are happy to share. I’ve also seen this stuff on The Freecycle Network. Or check the following websites: Village Harvest (nine U.S. states and one Canadian province), Urban Edibles (Portland, Ore.), Fallen Fruit (Los Angeles and environs) and Not Far From the Tree (Toronto). Don’t glean from vacant land or woods unless you have permission from the owner, and note that in some areas it is not legal to glean from city, county, state or federal lands.

6. Check out ethnic markets.

I lived near an Asian market in Seattle where I bought 10-pound bags of pinto beans for $6.99 and the cheapest bananas and chicken in town. Peek into your own local Hispanic, Asian or other specialty stores to see if the prices there are as good or better than the supermarket’s.

7. Join a warehouse club.

Although sales-plus-coupons at drugstores or supermarkets can be super cheap, Costco or Sam’s Club can often beat grocers’ everyday prices. Buying a six-pack of canned tuna means you can use some now and hold on to the rest. Certainly their prices on dried beans and rice are primo. Just don’t buy a giant jar of salsa or peanut butter if it’s going to go bad before you can use it all.

Read more: 9 items that will pay for your Costco membership


Don’t want to join? See if a friend who’s a member will pick up a few items for you.

8. Shop the drugstores.

Those coupon bloggers also highlight weekly specials on foods like soup, canned fruit, spaghetti sauce, ramen, cereal and teabags. Stack these specials with manufacturer’s coupons and you can get some very inexpensive items. These items may not make up a completely healthy diet, but they’re nice fill-ins or quick meals when you need them.

9. Buy like a restaurateur.

Do an online search for “restaurant supply stores” in your area and hone in on the ones that (a) are open to the public and (b) sell comestibles as well as cookware. A store near me in Seattle, Cash and Carry, let home cooks come in for warehouse-club-sized portions without paying a warehouse fee. Not everything was in a No. 10 can, mind you; I could get meat, cheese and produce (all of which freeze well) in reasonable quantities at startlingly low prices.

10. Investigate bakery outlets.

My partner and I routinely buy good-quality sandwich rolls and multi-grain breads for as little as a dollar per loaf, and tortillas for 50 cents per bag. It’s not stale. It’s surplus, and it freezes well. Do an online search for “bakery outlets” in your region.

11. Trade rewards points.

The quinoa that sells for $10.29 a bag in Anchorage markets was free to me because I bought it using Amazon gift cards obtained from the Swagbucks rewards program. MyPoints also offers Amazon cards, as do some rewards credit card plans. You could buy everyday foods that way too.

12. Pick your own.


Depending on where you live, getting food straight from the farmer can be a real deal. The results can be frozen, dried or canned. Find a farm at PickYourOwn.org or PickYourOwnFood.com.

13. The Freecycle Network.

Yes, really. I’ve seen frozen dinners, tree fruit, canned goods, surplus produce and even pet items offered up for free.

Storage and preservation

Even if you live in a relatively small space, it’s possible to stash a lot of foodstuffs. Here’s how:

14. Get a freezer.

As a single woman in Seattle, I owned a 5.5-cubic foot chest freezer, for great deals on loss-leader frozen vegetables, breads, dairy products, and meat and poultry. It was rather surprising how such a small appliance could hold such a lot of food. If you’re into batch-cooking, spend part of a weekend day in the kitchen and you’ll be able to freeze a month’s worth of meals.

Read more: Food waste is a real budget killer: How to make your food last longer!

15. Tally and date your finds.

Each time you buy something, add it to a master list. This is especially important for the freezer, because things way down at the bottom get lost and may wind up freezer-burned. For other items, use a black marker to write the date of purchase on the fronts (not the tops) of packages or cans.

Rotate the stock so you’re using items regularly. And again, buy stuff you actually like because stuff that doesn’t get eaten is no bargain.


16. Think outside the cupboard.

Stack goods in an armoire or in a dresser, trunk, bookcase or even a file cabinet.

17. Hang it up.

Add shoe organizers inside closet doors and store small canned goods, spices, toiletries and the like.

18. Use under-space.

Stock up using under-bed boxes (shades of the college dorm!) or stack plastic totes full of food and cover with a decorative cloth: instant end table!

19. Be shelf-conscious.

Put up shelves in a closet, laundry room or basement to store and organize your canned food and dry goods.

Of course, the most important tip is to bank your savings!

How do you build up your food pantry? Share your tips in the comments!