It's Time to Rethink the Holiday Food Drive

CC BY 2.0. Waldo Jaquith -- "As donations go, it’s much more satisfying to donate a minivan filled with Ragu than to send a $100 e-transfer." (Hopper)

Charities can do far more with cash donations than an 'anarchic box of random food.'

The holiday food drive season has begun, when offices, schools, and show venues ask for non-perishable food donations on behalf of local charities. The idea behind it is noble -- collecting surplus food to feed to the hungry at a challenging time of year -- but as Tristin Hopper pointed out in a thought-provoking article, this giving model is not as effective as we'd like to believe. Perhaps it's time to rethink how we feed people in need.

The problem is, cans are a real hassle for charities to deal with. They are heavy and awkward, must be transported and stored in a heated warehouse, and eventually sorted according to their (often weird) contents. Unfortunately many donors use canned food drives as a chance to clean out their pantry shelves, which makes them tough to work into a family's meal plan.

"Put yourself in the place of a food bank that has just accepted an anarchic 40-pound box of random food from an office fundraiser. It’s got pie filling, Kraft Dinner, beans, pumpkin, and chickpeas. All those food items need to be sorted, stored, inventoried and then shoehorned into the food bank’s distribution schedule."

A far more effective approach is to donate money. As Hopper explains, charities are in the business of buying food and can buy at rates that are a fraction of what ordinary shoppers would pay. A $3 can of tuna can be purchased for 50 cents by a charity. For example, "The savvy buyers at the Calgary Food Bank promise they can stretch $1 into $5."

So why don't more people give money? Because writing a check isn't nearly as gratifying to the giver as handing over a bag of canned goods. It's not as tangible as donating food. Nor does it feel as susceptible to misuse or corruption, a claim that every charity fears. Food feels safer than money, despite its inefficiency. Nor do charities want to ask for money instead of food, since some food is better than none, and they don't want donors to think they're being picky because help isn't badly needed.

Hopper's argument makes a lot of sense to me. As the head of a refugee sponsorship group in Ontario, Canada, I much prefer to receive cash donations or gift certificates from well-meaning community members than a flood of random donated goods, as lovely as they may be.

What should become a bigger priority is the redistribution of food that would otherwise go to waste. That's where charities could spearhead efforts to collect grocery store castoffs and restaurant leftovers, thereby increasing the amount of fresh food accessible to lower-income families and redirecting it away from landfills.

So, if you really care, be pragmatic in your approach to vanquishing poverty (and food waste): "Suck it up, key in your credit card number and enter the glorious world of anonymous, non-glamourous philanthropy."