Surplus of food in your pantry? Here’s what Berkeley homeless, food insecurity services need

Photo: chuttersnap on Unsplash

Though a mounting homelessness crisis has propelled many Berkeley residents to help in the fight against food insecurity and hunger, the sheer number of services and organizations can present a dizzying barrier to entry.

Nearly every shelter, food bank, community project and religious institution in the city accepts monetary donations, but most organizations also welcome “in-kind” donations, usually listed as food, drink and household items.

In-kind donations need to be sealed and non-perishable to ensure that they come from a reputable source, according to Bob Whalen, board member of the Berkeley Food Network, a non-profit founded last year that aims to streamline the process of local food donations.

“There’s plenty of food in Berkeley that’s being donated,” Whelan said. “More would be donated if there was a… singular place where people can bring their donations at any time.” The network is currently working on securing city funding to establish a home base and begin storing and delivering food.


The Berkeley Food Pantry and UC Berkeley Food Panty both accept in-kind donations, with a particular call for healthy food options that contain less sugar and salt, that are whole grain and contain healthy fats and lean protein. The Berkeley Food Pantry, which provides emergency groceries to individuals and families in Berkeley and Albany, is most in need of foods like peanut butter, low-sodium canned tuna or chicken, canned beans, canned soups, gluten-free grains and pasta, shelf-stable milk, and fresh produce. UC Berkeley Food Pantry, which provides food support for Cal’s student population, is seeking donations of eggs and fresh produce, herbs and spices, whole grains, lean meats, non-fat or low-fat dairy products and non-dairy milk alternatives.

Shelters that double as soup kitchens benefit from large, wholesale donations designed to feed tens to hundreds of people. For this reason, kitchens like Dorothy Day House, Loaves and Fishes, Food Not Bombs and Berkeley Food and Housing Project source most of their products from local grocery stores, chains and vendor donations. Most of these organizations don’t encourage small donations, like one or two cans of food, and restaurant leftovers and half-empty jars of food are especially unhelpful, but all accept volunteers to cook, serve or distribute meals, clean and organize donations.

Graphic: Supriya Yelimeli

Alameda County Community Food Bank services a majority of local shelters and food assistance programs. It accepts bulk in-kind donations and volunteers to source warehouse food, monitor the emergency food helpline and other special tasks based on language fluency and other abilities.

The Dorothy Day House is one of the few organizations in the city that accepts home-cooked meals from individuals, according to Whelan. The shelter serves dinner every night to a maximum capacity of 90 people, and Whelan said full pans and casserole dishes are helpful, in addition to a hugely beneficial partnership with Copia, an app that connects businesses with excess food to nonprofits. Copia, founded by UC Berkeley students in 2016, works with corporate caterers, universities and large food suppliers to ensure that any leftover food is delivered to people who need it. “They’ve been remarkable, they bring full trays of food,” Whelan said.

For those with food and cooked meals that want to reach out to homeless individuals directly can contact First They Came for the Homeless, the encampment near the Here/There sign that has a small community kitchen. The group is “roving,” Whelan said, so they may not consistently be in the same location, but they appreciate donations.

Because community dinners tend to be on different days and night of the week, online calendars are a good guide to volunteering in soup kitchens and food programs. Interested residents can also sign up for a recurring grocery program at the Berkeley Neighborhood Food Project, which coordinates with residents to pick up bags of food each month to donate to the Berkeley Food Pantry.