Food donations / DrivingtheNortheast

December 12, 2016; Vancouver Sun

Who doesn’t love cold, hard, cash at the holidays—especially when you’re a nonprofit?

A columnist for the National Post tried to do a good deed for local food banks this month by authoring an article called, “For the love of god stop donating canned goods to the food bank.” Tristin Hopper urged his fellow Canadians to end the ubiquitous canned food drives that are everywhere during the holiday season and take out their checkbooks instead:

Now don’t get me wrong. Donating to charity is a good thing, particularly during the holidays, when many charities budget for yuletide donations. But, the simple rules of economics are begging you: Give money to food banks, rather than food.

Canned goods have a particularly low rate of charitable return. They’re heavy, they’re awkward and they can be extremely difficult to fit into a family’s meal plan. Worst of all, the average consumer is buying those canned goods at four to five times the rock-bottom bulk price that can be obtained by the food bank itself.

Surely, he had the best of intentions. But, food pantries including the Greater Vancouver Food Bank were deluged with calls from confused donors who wondered whether they should halt their food drives, according to the Vancouver Sun.

Similar to most other food banks, the Greater Vancouver Food Bank does see more value from monetary, rather than canned, donations:

Cash is king for the Greater Vancouver Food Bank, which can turn a dollar of donated funds into at least $3 worth of food items. It doesn’t expire; it doesn’t have a best-before date. Plus, it allows donors to get a tax receipt.

Cash donations allow staff to plan meals and menus more efficiently. They can buy fresh fruits and vegetables directly from farmers, or buy whatever is missing from the cupboard to create a complete, nutritious meal for its clients.

But, food bank leaders also noted that canned goods are always welcome and encouraged the community to “donate what you would eat yourself.”

The advice harkens back to a Nonprofit Quarterly classic: Food Bank Etiquette, or How Not to be a Bleep at the Food Bank, including this thoughtful wisdom from a formerly homeless woman:

  • Don’t give stupid things. I once received an immense tub of candied fruitcake fruit from a food bank. When I eventually ran out of everything else and ended up eating some of it, I thought, “I am so poor, I’ve been reduced to eating other people’s rejects.” Some food is just too horrible to wish on anyone else; throw it out instead.
  • Consider giving food that can be eaten without cookingWhen I was homeless, I didn’t carry my microwave around. Even living indoors, people have a hard time cooking if their landlord won’t fix the broken stove or the power company just shut off the electricity again. That’s why some agencies specifically offer no-cook food bags. Think granola bars, crackers (including cheese and cracker packages), spam, tuna, peanut butter, dry milk—anything you’d take on a long hike.

But even this last suggestion does not work for all. Nonprofits are increasingly twisted into uncomfortable positions. We are encouraged to be more transparent and to ask for what we really need, but sometimes face backlash when those requests fly in the face of tradition. Cash, of course, can always be used to respond to what those coming to the service really need.

And, it’s a bumpy road ahead: We need to engage new and younger donors. But those donors, Millennials in particular, may be more likely to retweet a viral video to show they care than Venmo a donation to a charity.

One New Hampshire foundation tried to bridge the gap this holiday season, publicizing a list of “12 things food pantries wish they had…but might not ask for.” The list included toothpaste, tampons and spices, plus organic foods for kids.

The New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s list closed with a timely, heartwarming addendum: Thanks to an anonymous donor, up to $100,000 would be matched in donations to the New Hampshire Food Bank through the end of 2016.—Anna Berry