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Hunger knows no season

Here are a couple of ways to give to food banks -- even if you think you can't afford it.

By Donna_Freedman Nov 26, 2010 3:29PM

Yesterday I counted up my found money -- the coins and bills I pick up from sidewalks, the floors of public buildings and the returned-change bins in Coinstar machines.


It added up to $19.79, considerably less than last year's $34.54. Maybe that's because I got my degree last December -- no more days on the University of Washington campus, the home of lots of loose change.

Or maybe the economy is tight enough that more people are picking up the dimes they drop.

Not everyone does, though, because I found 64 dimes. Also two $1 bills, 20 quarters, 21 nickels and 534 pennies. Some people are completely grossed out by the notion of picking up pennies, viewing the practice as unsanitary.

But I'm glad to do this because it stretches my giving dollars. I rounded up my $19.79 to $30 and put a check in the mail to North Helpline, a Seattle social service agency that runs, among other things, a food bank.

If you're able, I hope you'll also support the food programs in your area. Most would prefer cash: Because they buy in bulk, they get a lot of bang for the buck. In fact, Feeding America notes that a $1 donation turns into $15 worth of groceries for people in need.

But the nonprofit's website also has a "Food & food drives" section for those who can't give cash but still want to help. One way to do that is to donate products you get for free with coupons and rebates.

Shopping for a better world

Recently I attended the Save Up 2010 conference in Chicago. The keynote speaker was Stephanie Nelson, author of "The Coupon Mom's Guide to Cutting Your Grocery Bill in Half." She told us her original goal had been to work with food banks to teach the hungry how to use coupons.

A food bank official nixed the idea, suggesting she build a website instead. So she started The Coupon Mom, which offers a coupon database and a state-by-state matching of coupons and sale prices.

Nelson doesn't charge a fee to use the site because she wants to encourage people to get great deals on products welcomed by food charities. (She highlights them in the listings.)

"If every shopper donated just one item per week," she wrote, "we would feed thousands of people who go hungry every week."

Recently it was announced that food prices are heading up again. Emergency pantries will no doubt feel the strain, both in the increased commodity costs and potentially fewer donations from people whose salaries aren't keeping pace with food inflation.

Hunger knows no season

Take a look at The Coupon Mom's site. Match a few coupons to a few products. It's fun to see how cheaply you can get everything from painkillers to pasta.

I do this, too, in addition to donating cash throughout the year. "Somebody needs it" is my motto. Recently I was able to take several bags full of cold medicine, shampoo, toothpaste, granola bars, canned tuna and other items to the Nickelsville homeless camp, which had set up in my church's parking lot for the second time in 18 months.

Sometimes I give these products to the church itself, since hungry people come in all the time to ask for food, or for rent or utility assistance.

And sometimes it's the North Helpline, whose volunteers always seem happy to take the food, toiletries and even pet products I get free or for pennies on the dollar.

Not everyone has time to do what Nelson calls "strategic shopping." But most people could take the time to pick up a penny. Pennies add up to dollars. A dollar given to Feeding America would have helped provide seven Thanksgiving dinners.

Thanksgiving has come and gone, but it's not too late to give. There are all those Christmas dinners to think about -- and besides, people are hungry every day, not just in November and December.

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