During the holidays, many people are thinking of ways to give back to their local community. While they prepare Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, they reflect on those who don’t have enough to eat and decide that they would like to donate to the local food pantry. As a veteran of a couple of food drives at work, here’s the Will Bike for Change (or Pie!) Guide to Food Bank Giving.
1) Give money. Seriously. According to food banks themselves (including one of my favorites, local charity Bread for the City), giving cash helps them much more than giving canned goods. For one thing, food banks can often get food much cheaper than you could ever buy it from the grocery store. The Slate article quotes the director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy as saying most food banks can obtain 20 times more food than what an ordinary person could buy with the same amount of money. In addition, food banks often need to cover their overhead costs, like rent and staff, more than they need food itself. All of the food in the world won’t do any good if the organization doesn’t have somewhere to store it or people working in the office. Many of them also do non-emergency food work, such as workforce development, healthy eating outreach, and medical services.
Unfortunately, giving cash isn’t always an option. For example, the federal government is only legally allowed to collect money for charity once a year, through the Combined Federal Campaign. If you want to work with your co-workers to give any other time of year, it has to be a physical item being donated. As a result, the government created Feds Feed Families, the massive annual food drive. The rest of the items on here are useful to keep in mind if you’re in this sort of situation.
2) Don’t raid your own cupboard. Most of the time when you get food out of your own pantry, it’s because you never got around to eating it yourself. If you don’t want to eat it, it’s likely no one else does either. The food bank doesn’t want canned goods that you should have thrown out long ago. This especially goes for exotic or specialty food items that are difficult to incorporate into meals.
3) Buy the same quality that you would for yourself. There’s nothing wrong with bags of dried beans or generic store brands, so long as you would be happy with having those in your own cupboard. Personally, I purchase organic canned goods for food drives when I can because it supports agriculture I believe in.
4) Pool your money and buy in bulk. If for some reason, you can’t directly donate cash, at least make it stretch a little further. At work, I offer my co-workers the convenience of supporting a Costco run. No one wants to haul canned goods on the Metro and we were able to purchase a lot more than a bunch of individuals would have.
5) Keep people with food sensitivities and allergies in mind. An increasing number of children are hungry; an increasing number of children have severe allergies. I can’t imagine there’s not some crossover. It’s hard enough to not have enough food, but it’s even worse when you literally can’t eat the food available without dying or getting very sick. In addition, allergen and/or gluten-free foods are often much more expensive than their conventional counterparts, making them even more difficult for families or food banks to purchase. Try to stick at least a couple of gluten-free and/or allergen-free items in your basket.
6) Stick to healthy staples. Many food banks are trying to promote healthy eating habits, with good reason. A lot of them are even offering free cooking classes to adults and children. Unhealthy food is consistently faster, cheaper, and more calorie-rich than healthy food, making it an easy choice in the short-term for hungry people. Providing healthy, basic foods that can be used in simple meals makes it easier for time-stressed, resource-poor folks to eat more healthfully while still getting enough calories. However, this doesn’t mean buying a lot of diet food. The best way to determine what you should get is to follow the recommendations of the food bank itself. If the organization doesn’t provide recommendations, this one from the Capital Area Food Bank is a great start.
7) Buy non-food items if the food bank accepts them. Many low-income folks need hygiene and paper items just as much as food, including soap, paper towels, and feminine products.
8) Find out if the food bank will accept perishable foods and if there’s a way to deliver them effectively. Most food banks get plenty of canned goods, but may also want and need fresh produce. Obviously, you don’t want to give them days-old bread or vegetables, but there may be a place for some creative giving. For example, you might be able to participate in a gleaning session at a local farm, allowing everyone to learn about local agriculture instead of just getting goods from the supermarket.
9) Use the food drive as the start, not the end of the conversation. When I headed my office’s Feds Feed Families effort, I used every email reminder as an opportunity to raise awareness. I pointed out how common hunger is, how much it’s increased since the economic crash, and how many children are affected in our area. I talked about the good work of the recipient, the Capital Area Food Bank, and how they work to provide emergency food supplies as well as other services. Because of the restrictions on using federal equipment for political speech, I wasn’t able to raise awareness around policy, but hope that I at least got people thinking about the subject. Starting conversations about hunger, as well as its causes and effects, can actually have a much more lasting impact on your community than the food you actually collect.
Do you regularly participate in a food drive? Have you found them helpful for starting conversations about our food system?