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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Food banks and soup kitchens get a lot of attention and donations this time of year. What worries those who feed the hungry is keeping shelves stocked after the holidays.

So they're already making plans, as NPR's Pam Fessler reports.

PAM FESSLER: At the Manna Food Center in Gaithersburg, Maryland, volunteers fill cartons with cans of green beans and boxes of pasta, but they're not doing it for the people waiting outside now for food.

Unidentified Woman #1: What does this say?

Unidentified Woman #2: Spaghetti/lasagna.

Unidentified Woman #1: Okay.

FESSLER: Instead, they're packing up supplies for February and March, when, center director Amy Ginsburg says, the shelves here will be a lot emptier.

Ms. AMY GINSBURG: (Executive Director, Manna Food Center): We're kind of like squirrels. We store food, and then we have it when we need it.

FESSLER: And by all accounts, she'll be needing more and more. Food bank directors across the country are preparing for a long, hard year ahead; and as they do, they're trying to juggle the ups and downs of donations with unrelenting demand. One possible solution: the Internet.

Ms. CLAUDIA JOHNSON (Communications & Advocacy Manager, Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana): Anyone can go to our Web site and donate money, but this identifies the things that we need in our warehouse right now.

FESSLER: Claudia Johnson is with the Community Harvest Food Bank of Northeast Indiana. She says the bank still holds regular food drives, but virtual food drives have added flexibility. Donors can go online to select from a long list of items.

Ms. JOHNSON: We even have pictures of the things on our virtual food drive. So you can see a turkey sitting there and click on the turkey, and that'll add $13.35 to your shopping cart right now.

FESSLER: She says online donors can also help the food bank, which buys in bulk, to get a lot more bang for the buck. That same turkey would cost a donor $19 at the store. Johnson says that's one reason more and more food banks are holding virtual food drives. Here's another:

Ms. JOHNSON: Some of the food we receive in a food drive is just not good for various reasons. And so, you know, some of it goes to the dumpster, and that's unfortunate as well. This way, we know it's fresh and it's what we need exactly.

Ms. CHERI VILLA (President and Chief Executive Officer, SERVE): Okay, we've gotten a can here, a 15-ounce can of quail eggs. We have grass jelly. We have jackfruit in syrup.

FESSLER: At the SERVE food pantry in Northern Virginia, they even have a special shelf for unwanted, outdated food. During a visit there last year, then-director Cheri Villa showed me some of the odder donations.

Ms. VILLA: We got a baby jar of prunes with tapioca. And that would be wonderful, only it has an expiration, you know, it looks like it's like from 1963 or something.

FESSLER: And with supplies tight, food banks can't afford such waste. The North Texas Food Bank in Dallas has been holding virtual drives since 2002 to help those who can't get to the stores themselves and to reduce the food bank's transportation costs. But president and CEO Jan Pruitt says many people still prefer the old-fashioned way. Some families use delivering food as a teaching experience for their kids.

Ms. JAN PRUITT (President and Chief Executive Officer, North Texas Food Bank): It's just something that makes them feel real good to go to the store, buy the food and bring it to the food bank or take it to the canned food drive.

FESSLER: And it's hard to get that same emotional reward online. Still, Pruitt wants to give donors as many options as possible because the need is so great.

Hers and other food banks are also relying more on grocery stores. Many donate products that are still fresh but hard to sell as the expiration date draws near.

Amy Ginsburg of Manna Food Center says she already gets about a third of her food that way. She points to a line of boxes filled with sweet potatoes, turnips and other items ready to be distributed to families.

Ms. GINSBURG: And when the trucks return from the grocery store, then we'll add more to the boxes. They're going to have blueberries, chicken, lots of the produce, probably a couple of sandwiches.

FESSLER: Which should be enough to help those on line today. Then she gets to worry about tomorrow.

Pam Fessler, NPR News.

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