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Are food drives a bad idea?

Donating canned goods and other nonperishable items to local food drives makes us feel generous -- but are we really helping as much as we could?

By Giselle Smith Dec 9, 2011 5:32PM

Most of us, at one time or another, have participated in a food drive. Hunger is a basic need that we can all understand, and reaching out to help seems natural and simple.

Even if we don't organize a donation site at work, or volunteer to sort cans at a community center, we often give away the excess in our own pantries, or purchase a few extra items at the grocery store and drop them in a bin. We feel better, thinking that we've helped. And there's always another collection box somewhere, so they must want the food. Right?

Well, maybe. If you really want to help people in need, give cash -- not cans. Matthew Yglesias took that position on Slate this week, prompting more than 750 reader comments and responses elsewhere online.

Do the math

If you think it through, it makes sense, even before you add up the dollars and cents. Buying in bulk is almost always cheaper than purchasing single cans and boxes. And many, but not all, food banks and pantries can get food at a fraction of the retail cost.

An emergency food provider might pay as little as 10 cents per pound for food that would cost you $2 a pound at the grocery store, Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, told Slate.

As Rosqueta and John Arnold, a former executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, wrote in an opinion piece last month for the Los Angeles Times:

In the true spirit of the season, if you really want to help such vulnerable families, go to your local food bank (or Feeding America to find one near you). Then take the money you would have used to buy cans for food drives and donate it to that local pantry. Fewer families will go hungry.

And then there's the issue of what gets donated.

You stopped eating high-sodium canned soup because you're watching your blood pressure, which is probably a concern for many needy people too. And do you really think that jar of baby corn or other specialty item (that was sitting on your shelf for three years) is going to be useful for a family in need?

Which brings up the labor involved. People -- often volunteers -- have to transport all donated food from collection sites to a central location, where it must be sorted and inspected (some people actually donate packages that have been opened) before it can be distributed. Post continues below.

With cash, a smaller number of people can purchase -- in bulk -- nutritious food that their charity's clients need -- and that they will eat and enjoy.

As Slate pointed out:

When you go to the grocery store, after all, you don't come home with a random assortment of stuff. You buy food that you like, that you know how to prepare, and that your family is willing to eat.

Good things about food drives

Hungry people need food, and giving them a box of donated cans and packages fills that immediate need without the middle step of finding a discount source and purchasing the food, several readers commented.

In addition, some people can't write a check, but they can give food. As Slate reader "James R. Olson" wrote:

I don't have any money, but I do have land and tools and a lifetime of knowledge of growing crops. Every year, for almost no money, I grow thousands of dollars' worth of organically grown vegetables, and when I deliver them to the food pantry there is a line of people waiting to get whatever I bring … Please don't tell me I am wasting my time; the look on the people's faces tells me otherwise.

Though some criticisms of food drives are valid, they miss the point, many insisted.

"Food drives are an educational tool, educating individuals about need, teaching young people the value of volunteering," Slate reader "Bruce Schlanderer" commented. "This is a great community effort that cannot be matched by simply collecting dollars."

"Here's what you miss when you make this all about the money: the opportunity to teach," wrote Ron Lieber on The New York Times' Bucks blog. "For a child, for instance, a food drive offers all sorts of lessons."

It can teach children to be charitable. The physical experience of sorting through items helps illustrate what is truly necessary, and the number of items donated -- and people participating -- shows that "we're all in this together," Lieber wrote.

Still, charities can almost always use monetary donations, as Slate said: "(A) fundamental issue is that many organizations feel that asking for money -- like requesting cash as a gift -- seems somewhat gauche."

The bottom line, as one New York Times reader who identified herself as a food bank board member commented: "We need both kinds of donations."

And -- as many others noted -- people need food year-round, not just during the holidays.

What will you do to help the hungry this season, and how will you make that decision?

More on MSN Money:

Dec 10, 2011 1:24AM
My church has an ongoing food drive for just two specific items that are frequently requested at the local food pantry. 

We run a food pantry and yes, we can get food at a fraction of the cost.  What we CAN get.  I say that because we are a smaller food pantry and the Regional CEO gives the best/most foods to the larger ones.  So for us, the food drives keep us going and able to help the families that come to us the best we can.

So please don't give up on food drives especially for the smaller pantries. 

Dec 10, 2011 5:38PM
If you want to teach a kid a lesson by his actions have him go to the food bank where you are sending your money donation and help. Or if they won't let minors at least he or she can see the people that are getting the food. If that doesn't help them get the message neither will a food drive.
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