03/03/2015 10:55 EST | Updated 05/03/2015 05:59 EDT

The best items to donate to food banks, which need support year round

TORONTO - More Canadians are using food banks, but what's available to eat doesn't always meet the need.

Yet hunger doesn't take a holiday.

"People do often think about supporting their local food bank or making extra donations of food or money or volunteering around Thanksgiving, the Christmas and holiday periods, and they're not often thinking about that all year-round," says Katharine Schmidt, executive director of Food Banks Canada.

"We find that food banks are struggling more through the spring and summer because of that. The demand doesn't go down and yet the support can really fluctuate."

Most food banks have enough resources to support an individual or family for three to five days once a month.

A dearth of donations may mean that food banks have to say no or give a little less to everyone coming in the door.

More than 14 million visits were made to Canadian food banks last year, according to HungerCount 2014, a survey done by Food Banks Canada on usage statistics gathered by more than 800 food banks and 3,000 food programs.

About 850,000 Canadians visit a food bank every month, and more than one-third of those helped are children.

Another startling figure in a prosperous country like Canada is that 90,000 Canadians step into a food bank for the first time every month.

Schmidt says there's been a 25 per cent increase in users since the 2008 economic recession.

"We think we're out of recession, but the reality is it's really tough for a lot of Canadians out there right now."

Food banks, which are not government funded, rely on businesses and volunteers in the community to keep their doors open.

Retailers like Loblaw Companies and Walmart Canada hold drives and also donate food that's safe to eat but might be close to the sell-by date.

Katie Southgate, a registered dietitian at Loblaw in Toronto, suggests people donate items they'd choose for own their families for a nutritious dinner plate — half vegetables, one-quarter lean protein and the rest complex carbohydrates.

Common requests are dry pasta and sauce, canned meats and fish, meat alternatives like peanut butter, canned vegetables without added sodium, and hot and cold cereal.

Southgate suggests five other ideas for foods that might be overlooked:

— Whole grains such as farro, spelt, barley and brown or wild rice are high in fibre and contain iron and magnesium. They can be added to soup, chili and salad

— Baby formula and cereal and pureed fruit and veggies are needed by children for optimal development

— Inexpensive and versatile lentils are a source of protein and high in fibre. They're easy to cook and don't require soaking first

— Milk, and alternatives like powdered milk or fortified shelf-stable almond, soy and rice milk, are a source of calcium and vitamins D and A

— Canned fruit packed in water, with no added sugar, is a source of vitamin C

When possible choose unbreakable containers; glass jars don't always survive transport.

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