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Want to help a food bank? Give cash, not food

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You wouldn’t go into the Red Cross and bring them a jumbo pack of bandages, right? You wouldn’t drive over to the Cancer Research Institute and offer to give them some of your leftover science, right?

But plenty of people will drive up to a food bank this holiday season and just drop off a bunch of food they chose at random from the grocery store or dug out of the back of their pantry.

Don’t get me wrong; donating to a food bank is a fantastic way to show some kindness to your fellow man this holiday season and address a real need. Food banks have been under a tremendous amount of pressure to serve America’s hungry, whose numbers have exploded since the Great Recession. And that was before a recent series of recent cuts to food stamp benefits.

Between 2006 and 2010, the number of people coming to Feeding America, a national hunger relief charity, increased from 25 million Americans in 2006 to 37 million in 2010 — an increase of 46 percent, says Ross Fraser, a spokesman for the organization.

“We continue to see new people coming to us for help but the people who have been turning to us for help are now coming more often, because they have fewer food stamp dollars to work with,” Fraser says.

But just because it’s called a “food bank” doesn’t mean the best way to donate them is to bring in actual food.

Food bank personnel are too nice to tell you they don’t want the dustiest canned food in your house dropped off to them in a ratty cardboard box. They’ll cheerfully take your donated food and thank you for it, and someone somewhere will probably end up eating it if it’s not expired.

But that’s not the best way to help them actually feed people, Fraser says.

“The most efficient way to donate and to help a food bank is to donate cash to them,” he says. “Everything helps, but bear in mind that when food is donated from the average supporter — food safety is so important to us — so that means we have to clean and inspect every can of food and every box of food that is donated to us to make sure that it’s not compromised, that it’s not out of date, etc. That can require a lot of man hours.”

Beyond sticking a food bank with the chore and expense of sorting, driving around and otherwise dealing with a ragtag bunch of canned goods, you’re also squandering a chance to do a lot more good than you could just by writing a check. Why that is comes down to economies of scale.

You know how when you got to Costco and can buy a flat of canned tuna for much less than it would cost can-by-can at the grocery store? Now imagine how much you could save on tuna if you could buy an entire pallet of tuna. Or a warehouse. Besides eating tuna every day for the rest of your life and probably developing some kind of neurological disease from the accumulated mercury, you’d probably be also getting that tuna for mere cents on the dollar, and that’s exactly what food banks are able to do.

“Because we buy in such tremendous quantities and don’t have to pay tax on it, we could probably buy three cans of tuna fish for what a consumer would pay for one can of tuna fish,” says Fraser. “We really stretch a dollar because we’re buying in bulk and we’re buying in quantity huge amounts of food from vendors who give us very good rates.”

There is one instance where donating cans may be preferable to donating money: teaching kids about the importance of helping the hungry.

“People do a lot of food drives at churches and schools because it becomes more real for the child than trying to understand the concept of writing the check,” Fraser says.

Still, I think there’s a larger point to be made here: The truly frugal are just as concerned with getting great bang for their buck when donating to charity as they are when doing their holiday shopping. And in this case, writing the check to a well-run charity is going to do that much more effectively than donating physical goods.

What do you think? How do you get the most bang for your buck when donating to charity?

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2 Responses to “Want to help a food bank? Give cash, not food”

  1. Karl says:

    I give money primarily for the reasons you articulated.

    I do not give to food banks or anything like that. Food stamps are more than enough. At least half the comments on the article on cutting food stamps (referenced in article above) seemed to agree

    I give money to environmental charities

  2. chitown says:

    Great Post! So often food drives ask you to bring in non-perishables that you think that’s the best and right thing to do but the cash can go a lot farther.


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