How to Help Feed the Hungry at the Holidays and Year-Round

Volunteers prepare plates of Thanksgiving dinner for more than 5,000 District of Columbia residents during the Salvation Army and Safeway's 18th annual 'Feast of Sharing' at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on November 22. Partners also provided free haircuts, manicures, clothing and hosted a resource expo for the needy during the event. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

With Thanksgiving upon us, a charitable spirit is as well. You may want to donate food or volunteer to help, but how do you get started?

1. Start Close to Home

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that 12.3 percent of American households, or about one in eight, are food insecure. That means that they don't always know if they'll have enough food to get through the month.

While there are starving people all over the world, the problem is also typically found locally. Volunteering time and donating food within one's community or state may be a more efficient use of resources then sending people or items halfway around the world.

Local food banks, pantries and charities are easily found. But, donating money instead of canned goods might be the best use of your resources. As Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explained to Slate, food banks buy in bulk and can stretch a dollar much farther than you can, and they know what they actually need. A heavy box of random, assorted items doesn't do nearly as much good as cold, hard cash.

2. Consider Your Local Resources

Do you live near a church, mosque or synagogue that offers a Thanksgiving feast? Even if you are not of that religion, most places of worship welcome volunteers for secular giving, if and when there is space for volunteers.

Homeless shelters welcome volunteers most of the year, but sometimes they get too many volunteers on Thanksgiving, as Time explains. In fact, on skid row in Los Angeles, you have to sign up well in advance to feed the hungry. In 2013, the Los Angeles Times reported that Midnight Mission, a food distribution center in Los Angeles, was turning away 50 callers a day leading up to Thanksgiving because so many people wanted to volunteer that day. The Atlantic even called Thanksgiving volunteering "the most sought-after role in Hollywood."

If you really want to volunteer, just celebrate Thanksgiving year-round and go every week outside the holidays.

3. Encourage Restaurants and Stores to Donate

According to a 2016 report from the Food Waste Reduction Alliance, 39 percent of restaurants don't want to donate because of "liability concerns." Donating food that would otherwise be thrown away at the end of the day could, these businesses claim, lead to an injury, followed by a lawsuit against the donor.

But U.S. law protects food donors. The Bill Emerson Good Samaritan Food Donation Act, which was passed more than 20 years ago, makes suing someone for donating food in good faith illegal. Making restaurant managers aware of the Bill Emerson law could be a way to encourage a restaurant to not put food in the trash that could easily be donated.

4. Start or Join a Food Distribution Program

Organizing a donation requires some legwork. Many restaurant or food shop owners may not know where the nearest food bank is, how to get the food there, and whether that bank even wants that type of food. (They definitely don't want any half-eaten meals, for instance.)

That's where food distribution programs come in. They take care of the dirty work: connecting with the food bank, seeing what food they want, going to restaurants and stores, and picking up the goods. They even sometimes help the store get a tax deduction. These programs make it so that food banks often don't have to buy food at all, just organize and distribute it.

There are several programs like this, including the White Pony Express in Northern California, and different chapters of Food Not Bombs all over the country.