When you enter a food bank or pantry for the first time, it will seem like everyone knows each other and what to do. They know where to stand in line, where to sign in, and how to select pantry products. It's okay to admit to being a newbie! These people are there to help you. Usually, everyone is pretty kindhearted.
Look first for a table set up with papers, and someone who seems to be in charge. You will probably have to fill out paperwork on your first visit to prove who you are and that you are in need. Call first to know what documentation to bring in. If you didn't call first (they don't all have a phone!), it's okay. Just tell the desk person that you are new, and there for a food box. You do not have to explain your life story. You do not have to be homeless. Being low income is the only requirement to receive a free box or bag of nutritious food.
After filling out your forms, ask what you need to do next. On my first food bank visit, I was terrified of looking new. It seems ridiculous now, but I wanted to just melt into the crowd, and I made things harder for myself by fumbling around and trying to imitate people. In some cases it took me months to learn that there was more than food at some places for me - that I could also take clothes, or books, or housewares - because there were different rooms to 'shop' in besides the food room.
Now I am very comfortable in food banks. My advice is to tell the desk person you don't know how they operate and ask what to do. They will show you where to stand in line, tell you if you need to bring your own bags or not, and clue you in on all their services.
When you get in line, make sure you ask the volunteers how much of something you can take. Often you can select several loaves of bread, two types of each canned good, and all the produce you want. I've seen beautiful artisan breads, English muffins, bagels, sliced white and wheat bread, pita pockets and bags of rolls. Sometimes there is meat or dairy, and sometimes you can even get supermarket cakes! It's often different what is available from week to week. Take what you think you will eat.
In some places there are ready made boxes for you, full of food, and there is no picking. You just thank them and go.
Every place I have visited in my community has fresh produce available, which is something I never considered. I've taken home boxes and boxes of tomatoes and squash (both summer and winter kinds), buckets of cucumbers, bags of salad, more heads of cabbage than I could turn into coleslaw, and heaps of onions and potatoes. I've had to learn how to preserve foods just to take advantage of this largesse.
Don't feel like you are stealing from more deserving or hungrier families if you take what is offered from a food bank. All this great food will go to waste if you don't take it! The Good Samaritan Food Donation Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1996 allows grocery stores and other purveyors of food to donate excess edible food to needy organizations. This is a boon for food pantries and our communities. Good food should never be tossed in the garbage.
If you have livestock, don't forget to ask if you can also take the unwanted leftover produce at the end of their workday. Your chickens and goats won't care if the carrots and celery are wilted, or if the bread has a few spots of mold. My friend has a dog who loves to eat bell peppers, even ones that don't look good enough for people food.
It's always worth asking. You want to keep these useful nutrients out of the trash, and so do the people at the pantry. If you don't have lifestock, put the unwanted produce in your compost bin (or start a compost bin). This is a great free way to make your own garden fertilizer, and keep valuable biological nutrients in the ecosystem. It's an all around good deed.
Lastly, be very nice to the volunteers at the food bank. Only take what items are allotted to each person, and thank everyone who helps you. Smile. These people are probably doing this work for free, simply to enjoy the feeling of helping others.
Don't be sullen or angry at your circumstances while receiving this assistance. Times are tough. People get that; it doesn't mean you are a bum, or a drain on society. Maybe one day you can be in a position to help others, to give back in some way, or volunteer your own time to help out. :)