A few years ago I participated in a recipe contest trying to win money for my chosen charity, the Capital Area Food Bank in Washington D.C. While preparing for the contest, I did a fair amount of research on food banks and the services they provide to communities, and I learned a lot. And though my sandwich did not ultimately win the contest—I think it came in second—I’m glad I participated and hopefully spread information about the good work of food banks and pantries.
For example, I learned that food banks and food pantries are two different types of organizations. A food bank solicits, stores, and distributes foods to local agencies that support the public directly, including food pantries, soup kitchens, halfway homes, orphanages, and shelters.
Food banks have access to food at a low price that the average consumer does not. They can get produce at one-tenth or less the retail price you and I pay in the store. For every dollar they receive, the food bank can provide the equivalent of 3 or 4 meals to the local agencies. So that $1 spent on a can of beans or $2 on a jar of peanut butter could go directly to the food bank and provide 9 to 12 meals, not just one or two jars of food.
November and December and into the winter months is a big time of year for the organizations that support people in need. Schools, churches, and service organizations hold canned food drives to help stock the shelves at the local food pantries that provide food and other services for the community. And while those efforts are appreciated, they may not always be helpful in the way we think it is. Every item donated must be carefully selected and sorted, a lot of hands on labor for the food pantry. Food support organizations have reported that as much as 50% of the food donations received from food drives are unusable for a variety of reasons.
50% unusable. That’s not helpful, that’s wasteful.
Some food may not be suitable if it’s expired, or can cause health problems that we might not think of. For example, high-sodium soups may end up going to someone whose health problems require a low-sodium diet, or items with nuts could go to someone with allergies, putting their health at risk. Some food pantries have rules about the nutritional standards of foods they distribute and don’t accept high-sugar cereals and other food donations with empty calories. And often the food pantries provide and need other items we might not think of, such as toiletries or paper products.
So the most important thing to do before starting a food drive is to talk to the people at the food bank, pantry, shelter, or other organization you want to support. Many have websites, so I suggest visiting the organization’s website or contacting them directly. Work with them to find out what they need and how to best support them and the people who need help. Always ask! Many now have virtual food drives that allow supporters to donate money online that will go directly to food in amounts that will greatly outweigh the average consumer’s purchasing power. They may have online wishlists that let you know exactly what they need, and a few innovative organizations even have Amazon registries that you can peruse and order from directly for them.
Feeding America provides a searchable list of food banks throughout the United States, just go to their website (click the image above) and put in your zip code to find your local community food bank. They will appreciate the help. And while you are donating, consider volunteering to help stock shelves, distribute food, whatever they need. A few hours a month, not just November and December, helps keep the work of the pantry and food bank alive.
Because hunger happens every day, not just two months out of the year.
- Feeding America – Food Drives: Where to Donate Food
- Capital Area Food Bank – About Us
- Bread for the City – Wishlist
- Slate.com – Can the Cans: Why Food Drives Are a Terrible Idea
[Disclosure: This post is not sponsored by or connected with any of the organizations mentioned. Opinions are my own.]