Stop donating food. (Donate time or money instead.)

‘Tis the season of seasonal giving. When many folks are busy buying gifts, the social narrative of capitalism says that we must think of those “less fortunate than ourselves” and work to “make a difference” in their lives. Often this manifests itself into food drives.

Note: I have strong thoughts about food drives. They are informed mostly by my work at a wonderful, fantastically-run food pantry in Western Mass and an internship at the also excellent Greater Boston Food Bank. While much of what I learned in those places informs this post, of course my opinions aren’t those of either organization.

Here’s the gist of it all: Stop donating food. If you really want to help your local food pantry, donate money or time.

¬†Here’s why:

1. If you’re giving random stuff out of your pantry… chances are it is old, unhealthy, or unwanted. That diet cereal you bought last January? Yeah, it’s way past its best-by-date. And while food pantries and banks are good at knowing what foods can usually be safely eaten past their marked dates, chances are what’s in the back of your cupboard has seen the end of its shelf life.

Also: Fun news flash: Most of the people who shop at food pantries are not there to get whatever calories are available simply so that they don’t starve. Most of them have preferences and tastes just like you and me. So… that gross cereal that tastes like cardboard? It’s not going to get eaten.

2. They do more good for the givers than the receivers. Everyone loves a good cause, and food drives are no exception. You feel so useful! You can see the effects of your labors! You can quantify it in pounds! So much goodwill! Look, I understand this. I have felt the incredibly surge of community goodwill that comes from unloading thousands of pounds of food generated by the USPS’ Annual Food Drive. It’s intoxicating. But when you do a food drive, you get a mishmash of product; very rarely do you get the things that most food pantries really need — basic canned goods with a good shelf life (proteins like tuna and beans, soups, tomato products, fruit, boxed pasta, etc).

And see #1 — you often get stuff that is old, unhealthy, or unwanted. So what makes you feel good isn’t really the best for the people that you’re trying to help. Don’t fool yourself; the food drive you’re giving to is really about alleviating your own guilt that you’re “not doing enough.” If you really want to help people eat, there are better actions to take. Which leads me to…

3. The food pantry can do SO much more with $5 than the $5 worth of food that you bought at the grocery store. To combat #1 above, lots of people go above and beyond. They ask their food pantries what they need. They do *specific* food drives, asking for newly purchased cans of tuna, for example.

And you know what? These are the very best kinds of food drives. They do real good — the food is new, healthy, and wanted. If you’re going to do a food drive, a specific one like this is the best. Especially if we’re talking about a school-based food drive, where part of the point is to teach kids about issues like hunger and sharing, this is a great way to go.

Another exception to this is fresh produce: If you run a farm and have a glutton of zucchini, there’s probably no better home for it than your local food pantry. (Again, remember that most people at food pantries are like you and me — think about what it would be like to get all of your food from a can or box. Try shopping like that for a week. It sucks. Produce starts looking like manna.) One of the happiest days of my time at the Northampton Survival Center was when a farmer drove in with 600 pounds of root vegetables. Our clients were thrilled to have access to fresh, local produce!

butternut squash

But most of the time, the very best way to help your local food pantry is to give money. And here’s why: Most of the food that food pantries and soup kitchens have on their shelves is not from a food drive. It’s from a food bank. That food bank is getting food from the food industry at much cheaper prices.

For example, let’s say that you’re looking to help a food pantry fill up its supply of canned tuna:

What you can do: You go to your local store and buy tuna on sale for $.50 cents a can. A normal can is about 12 ounces, so with $5, you get 10 cans, worth 120 oz, or 7.5 pounds. Cost is $.66/lb. Seems like a pretty good deal.

What a food bank can do: A regional food bank gets a donation of, say, StarKist tuna. Maybe it’s just one pallet of food. Or maybe it’s a whole bunch because they’re changing their branding and they don’t want the old stuff on the shelves. So the food bank gets all that tuna for free. (Companies like doing this because they can take the donation as a tax write-off. Very good for them!) Then the food bank sells that tuna to a food pantry, charging a moderate fee that covers operational cost, usually around $.19/lb. So for $5, the food pantry can buy over 26 pounds of tuna! More importantly, they can buy it when it’s truly needed! (For instance, in the summer when the tide of food and monetary donations is lower.)

food pantry volunteer

And if you can’t give money, give time. Donating your time to a local food pantry or soup kitchen is an all-around fantastic thing to do. Here’s why:

1. It helps the organization. Your labor literally ensures that people can eat. Whether it’s helping people shop during pantry hours, stocking shelves, or picking up produce/bread donations, the role that volunteers play for food panties cannot be overstated. For even a small organization, volunteers provide the equivalent of millions of dollars of free labor annually.

2. It helps you. Remember that warm and fuzzy feeling that you get by helping out with a food drive? It’s so much better when you’re at the organization, working to help ensure people get what they need.

But most importantly…

3. It helps the people who need the food. And I don’t mean because they walk away with food and you helped with that. I mean that if you really, truly want to understand what people who live in food insecurity need, then you need to meet them. You need to have conversations with them and listen to their stories (when they want to share them). You need to understand that the people who come to get food at your local food pantry are your neighbors and community members — there is not some separate species called “the hungry.” You need to see that food insecurity is like cancer — it can have obvious causes (some of which have simple solutions), or it can seem to strike out of nowhere, infesting all corners of your life and becoming intractable. That’s when you’ll truly be able to make a difference.

Donate or Volunteer — year-round!

find a food bank find a food pantrydonate your produce

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