Food Banks or Food Pantries: What’s the difference?

Food banks are places that serve as repositories for food that is is purchased or donated. They are usually warehouses that hold large quantities of shelved food. If it is perishable, like milk or vegetables, it is refrigerated. Often, it must be repackaged so that it is available in smaller quantities that are suitable for family use.

In general, food banks do not deal with food pantry clients directly. Rather, they deliver food to the pantries. Pantry clients shop at no cost to get what the food and milk they need.

In Wisconsin, there are 275 food pantries, but there may be many more that aren’t counted. Some pantries just “pop up” inside of a school or church based on need in that community. Some serve only what’s donated, but others are part of a large network to ensure that they deliver nutritious food to those in need.


Second Harvest Food Bank

SHFB is one of two food banks in our area. It serves a 16-county region in southwest Wisconsin, from Dane County to the Iowa/Minnesota borders and south to Illinois. Second Harvest serves about 115,000 unique, food insecure individuals per year.

Much of the milk is purchased from the Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, Wisconsin through its popular “Adopt-a-Cow” program.

We receive, including what we buy, about 70,000 gallons per year, not even one gallon per person per year.”

Danielle Lawson, Food Procurement Director for SHFB, 2019.

Community Action Coalition


CAC is part of a network of organizations in communities that originated in the 1960’s as part of the war on poverty. CAC delivers commodity products to local food pantries.

The USDA buys commodities, including milk, primarily to help feed the hungry and as a mechanism to create demand for products to boost prices. The Wisconsin Department of Health Services administers the program here. Food is trucked to the CAC through the Department of Public Instruction because of the existing transportation network serving public schools.

Catie Badsing (on left, near boxes) pictured to the left, is the CAC procurement leader. They only have one truck with which to deliver food to the pantries.

Pantries love the CAC in part because they don’t pay for the food or milk that they get. This particularly helpd pantries that have little to no budget.

(Photo: Karen Andro, 2020)

Food Pantries

  • There are many food pantries in the Madison area and each works a little differently from the others.
  • Some pantries allow patrons to shop in their facility as often as needed; some once a week, or once a month.
  • Others box up food so that everyone gets the same thing.
  • All milk must be refrigerated unless it it UHT milk (shelf stable).
  • Most facilities must limit the quantity of milk per customer.
  • In the picture on the right, patrons were only allowed to take 2 quarts of milk for a family of seven. This cannot possibly be adequate.
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