In a recent piece at Slate, Matthew Yglesias makes the case that, economically speaking, they are. For one thing, it is cheaper to purchase food in bulk than at retail price, so food shelves are likely to get better deals than consumers. Yglesias also points out that the food industry often has surplus food that emergency food providers are able to obtain for a small fee. Finally, food donations create extra work for food shelf staff, who have to inspect and sort items — some of which do not meet nutritional requirements or other client dietary needs.
In-kind donations still help, of course, and nobody’s turning away boxes of food. But a fundamental issue is that many organizations feel that asking for money—like requesting cash as a gift—seems somewhat gauche. So, let me be rude on their behalf: Find well-managed charities in your community and trust them to know how to do their job. They have access to food at a fraction of the price. They know their clients, and they have better things to do than to sort through your canned goods.
As Development Coordinator for Hallie Q. Brown Food Shelf, I certainly wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from making a cash donation. However, from my perspective – I can’t claim to speak on behalf of other food shelves, either locally or nationally – there is more to the story.
Of course it is true that bulk is cheaper than retail price and that many food banks are partnering with the food industry to reduce food waste. An MPR article a few months back reported that
Over the last four years, Second Harvest Heartland more than quadrupled the amount of perishable food it gets from grocery stores like Cub, Walmart, and Target, to 12.3 million pounds in 2010. That’s enough for more than 9 million meals.
The cost savings a food bank like Second Harvest gains by partnering with grocery stores in turn gets passed along to food shelves such as ours – which are able purchase food from local food banks at a steep discount.
Note, however, that food banks (through no fault of their own) do not always have the specific items we need the most. Here is where a food drive can be highly effective. This month, for example, Hallie Q. Brown Food Shelf is having partner schools request sugar, flour, cereal, and a few other items – items which local food banks do not currently carry. A few other items that we have requested – canned fruit and meat – are simply too expensive for us to purchase regularly. And then there is the over 6,000 lbs of fresh local produce that Minnesota farmers donated to us this growing season.
All of this is to say that I believe there is indeed a place for food drives — and that it is an oversimplification to call them “economically speaking . . . totally insane” as Yglesias does. Certainly, food shelves can do more with dollars directly provided to them, but a targeted food drive can do a lot of good.
Here’s the other thing. Food drives are about more than just economics. A food drive provides the opportunity for us to establish and strengthen partnerships with businesses, churches, and others, in a way that cash contributions just don’t. Also, for K-12 students, food drives provide a valuable opportunity to learn about helping those in need and other essential values. Most importantly, food drives provide a way to get people involved and connect to nonprofits in a way they are comfortable with. I think it is a mistake to insist that people can only donate to organization and help people in a monetary way or to dismiss such efforts as trivial. People help out in the ways they can, and we will never turn away assistance that will make a difference to our clients.
So are food drives a bad idea? Not at all. But if you’re still unconvinced, you’re always welcome to make a donation to Hallie Q. Brown Food Shelf by clicking here!