It’s the holiday season. You’ve probably been invited to something — a kid’s holiday concert at school, a neighborhood party, a church service — where you were asked to bring a non-perishable food item for a local food bank. And, if you’re like me, your well-intentioned donation was left sitting on your kitchen counter, and you ended up feeling like a slacker.
Good news. It’s better to give cash to food banks, according to Slate, so you can assuage your guilt by writing a check. Food banks have the ability to turn your cash into food at a rate you can't match. It’s estimated that food banks pay about 10 cents a pound for the same food that costs shoppers about $2 per pound.
The food that can be bought through cash donations not only costs less, it’s easier for food banks to manage. When a donation of canned goods and other non-perishables comes in from a neighborhood food drive, that food has to be sorted, can by can.
I spent some time with my boys last summer volunteering at The Food Bank of South Jersey, and one of the jobs we did was sorting through donations. We had to go through boxes and boxes of donated non-perishables to look for expiration dates and damage, and then put the food in its proper place. We were amazed at how much the food bank had to throw away because it was unusable. Fortunately, my local food bank seems to have a good group of volunteers to call on for this task, but it still takes hours every week to sort through these donations.
When food banks can purchase food for 5 percent of the cost you pay — and when it makes their jobs easier — it’s time to start thinking about donating cash instead of food.
Does this mean that you should never donate food? Not necessarily. Our church does a drive before Thanksgiving with a list of specific items for baskets that will be given to families in need. We also have a small room where we keep food donations to help families in the community. For organizations like my church, cash donations are always welcome, but the food is helpful, too.
It’s also a good thing for kids to be able to donate actual items of food when they have the opportunity to do so. If a child comes home from school and says they’re collecting food, by all means, give him a can of soup. Younger children can grasp the concept that a can of food will help a hungry person, but they might not grasp the concept when you say, “No, we don’t need to donate food. We donate money.”
When it comes to the larger, regional food banks, cash is king. You don’t have to wait for a request letter to donate either. Almost all regional food banks take donations online now, and many of them have the ability to accept texted donation. (Where I am, the texted amount gets added to your phone bill. It’s that easy.)
Another easy way to donate money this time of year is to give at the supermarket checkout. On the East Coast and probably beyond, there’s a program called Check Out Hunger. I can donate as little as $1 each time I buy groceries.
So next time you leave your can of soup on the counter by mistake, feel free to leave your guilt there, too. Just remember to make a small monetary donation to your local food bank. It will go a lot further than your can of soup.
This video explains why it's better to open your wallet than your pantry when giving to charities: