Stop Donating Cans to Food Banks  – Here’s Why.

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Stop Donating Cans to Food Banks  – Here’s Why.

It’s one of the most cherished practices of the holiday season, and it may also be unwittingly robbing resources from some of our most important charities.

You’ve seen it at the office. You’ve seen it at the library. You’ve seen it at your kids’ Christmas recital. You’ve seen it championed by police, firefighters and municipal officials.

I’m talking, of course, about donating canned goods to holiday food drives.

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 their canned goods at four to five times the rock-bottom bulk price that can be obtained by the food bank itself.

That $1 you spent on tuna could have purchased $4 worth of tuna if put in the hands of non-profit employee whose only job is to buy food as cheaply as possible. The savvy buyers at the Calgary Food Bank, for instance, promise that they can stretch $1 into $5.

Probably the worst tragedy of the inefficient food drive is holiday events and theater performances where organizers ask for canned food donations in lieu of selling tickets.

The better option, of course, is to keep selling tickets and donate the box office take to the food bank. By not doing this, these well-meaning organizers are effectively surrendering vast amounts of critically needed grocery money in exchange for heavy cardboard boxes filled with god knows what.

And then there’s the logistical nightmare when these boxes show up at the food bank’s loading dock.

Put yourself in the place of a food bank that has just accepted an anarchic 40 pound box of random food from an office fundraiser. It’s got pie filling, Kraft Dinner, beans, pumpkin and chick peas. All those food items need to be sorted, stored, inventoried and then shoehorned into the food bank’s distribution schedule.

It’s bad form to have low-income families eat nothing but creamed corn until the stocks run dry, so some items move faster than others.

Consider the Herculean plight of the food bank warehouse manager, and it’s easy to imagine how a particularly unhelpful box of food could end up doing nothing but wasting a bunch of people’s time before it ends up shunted into a dumpster.

All this has been known for years, and yet the practice continues. There’s a few reasons for this.

First, charities are extremely leery about telling people how to donate. Nothing alienates a good samaritan faster than watching them pull up in a cube van of donated food, only to suggest that “maybe next time they just cut a cheque.” When charities get picky, it’s human for would-be donors to think that they don’t really the need the help that bad.

Second, people don’t trust charities. Charities have particularly fragile brands, and it only takes one or two charitable scandals showing up in someone’s Facebook feed for them to start casting aspersions on our nation’s non-profits.

So, by donating a flat of condensed milk instead of $30, donors feel they are insulating themselves against any unseemly corruption. Instead, it’s usually quite the opposite: Their bid to protest the perceived inefficiency of a charity merely burdens that charity with more inefficiency.

This was something seen during the Fort McMurray fires. Many Albertans, leery of seeing monetary donations vanish down some kind of bureaucratic black hole, insisted instead on donating mountains of diapers and toiletries that got wasted.

And lastly, something that is probably the most uncomfortable fact about all this; it doesn’t feel as good to donate money. As much as we like to pretend that charitable giving is a selfless act, a lot of it is driven by the human need to feel special and magnanimous.

As donations go, it’s much more satisfying to donate a minivan filled with Ragu than to send a $100 e-transfer.

Charities know this, and it’s another reason why they are so hesitant to pooh-pooh canned food drives, despite the extra logistical cost. Non-profits know that people get a buzz from loudly dropping $6 worth of cans into an office hamper, and they’re happy to channel that urge towards something good.

They also know it’s a tougher sell to convince schools and offices to merely pass the hat for the hungry, rather than big photo-worthy gestures like building towers of creamed corn.

Office food hampers. Horn of plenty, or logistical nightmare? Postmedia File

So, if you feel your coworkers or students need something spherical and tactile in order to fire their benevolent instincts, then by all means hold a food drive, and remind people to stick to the always-needed staples like peanut butter and canned fish.

But if you’re a pragmatist just looking to vanquish as much poverty as possible with your disposable income, suck it up, key in your credit card number and enter the glorious world of anonymous, non-glamourous philanthropy.

That empty food hamper at your office needn’t be a mark of shame, but a badge of honour.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the video in the top of this post. And check out Food Banks Canada to donate or find a food bank close to your community.