Can I speak up as a person who has been poor twice and has occasionally used food pantries?
The suggestion to contact local pantries and food distribution charities is excellent, as needs change over time. These agencies will be familiar with local needs. If you go to them and say “What do you need most?” they will tell you. In addition to having been a recipient of aid, I also have this as my favorite form of charity when I am middle class and able to be generous. I have asked this and been told “money”, “canned protein”, and for three months at one point “50 lb sack of baking potatoes” (the latter was for a shelter specializing in homeless mentally ill women - definitely a needy sub-population. The staff asked the regulars what they most wanted and that’s what got the most votes.)
Yes, some of us poor folk can use bulk staples like flour, sugar, dried pasta, dried legumes, baking potatoes etc. I have a home and working stove/oven and all the tools and knowledge needed to cook and bake. But not everyone does. In addition to folks of low income or extended hardship, food pantries will also provide emergency aid to, say, families displaced by a house fire or tornado or flooding or other catastrophe, homeless shelters, battered women’s shelters, etc. These people may have little or no access to cooking appliances. In other words, BOTH sorts of donations will be used.
Obviously, non-perishable items are always welcome.
Food distribution charities do distribute fresh fruits and vegetables, but sometimes they’d rather buy them than have them donated due to concerns about storage and handling. Fruits like oranges, bananas, and apples that keep for awhile at room temperature much appreciated but ask before donating these as not all locations can store fresh foods.
When poor, buying starches is relatively easy but high protein foods not so much. Yes, beans are cheap, but not everyone can eat beans, not to mention it gets BORING. ANY sort of canned meat - ham, fish, corned beef, stews, hearty soups - will be welcomed.
Foods that can be “cooked”/reheated/prepared with just hot water are good - instant noodles, hot chocolate, powdered drinks, etc. These are useful not only to folks in hotel rooms and living under bridges but also useful for those who still have a home and kitchen but are probably spending a lot of time and energy struggling with one thing or another (looking for work, disability, whatever). Individual serving size might also be welcomed, particularly, again, for those without access to kitchens or refrigerators.
Condiments are frequently forgotten - salt, pepper, basic cooking spices, hot sauce, ketchup, mustard, mayonnaise, Miracle Whip, soy sauce, taco sauce… these are expensive when you’re on a very tight food budget or food stamps, but very welcome as cheap food is often bland food. Both soup kitchens that cook for quantities of people as well as those visiting food pantries for take-home supplies can use these (obviously, quantities used will differ).
Another forgotten group of items are things like paper towels, cleanser, scrubbing things, storage bags (ziplocks are so darn useful!), storage containers, plastic wrap, foil, etc. Ask before donating, but it’s yet another group of items that gets forgotten.
If a local charity or group of charities is doing one of those “buy $20 worth of groceries” things at local groceries that could be a good thing as the money is pooled so purchases can take advantage of economies of scale and also purchase quantities and varieties that will be utilized more efficiently than random donations.
Toiletries, cleaning supplies, and so forth may also be welcome at these charities. As much as possible buy non-scented, unisex, hypoallergenic products. As mentioned, toothpaste, toothbrushes, mouthwash, dental floss, toilet paper, facial tissues, deodorant, feminine sanitary products, incontinence products (disabled and elderly use these charities), shampoo, conditioner, hairbrushes/combs, hair ties, moisturizer, lip balm, etc. In some cases (shelters, for example) new socks, new underwear, gloves, hats, scarves, etc. would also be useful (The most recent food pantry I went to was also a “clothes pantry”, providing a wide variety of donated clothing to the needy as well as food).
Remember - if it isn’t of quality that you would use don’t donate it. Poor people deserve decent stuff, too.
By all means research ANY group you donate money to, whether local/national grocery chains, food banks, or churches. If they’re legit they’ll be more than happy to tell you how things are run/money spent/items distributed.
Finally - if you personally know a family in need, or a person in need, you can give them a gift card to a local grocery or a store like Meijer’s or Wal-Mart so they can purchase what they specifically need.
You can also ask churches/charities if any of their people have medical needs that aren’t being served. There are diabetics who have trouble buying their testing supplies, for example. I already mentioned incontinence supplies. Someone might need help with medication, either prescription OR over the counter (it sucks to have trouble buying things like allergy medicine, band aids, headache remedies, etc.) Someone might have prescription drug coverage, but no help for NON-prescription medical needs which can also be important. That’s a little more directed than simply dropping off cans, but it’s a real need that isn’t always fulfilled.
Just in case I haven’t covered anything - look around your own kitchen and bathroom. Anything you see there a poor person or family will also need and use.