To help the most people, give cash instead of cans

Posted: November 24, 2011

By John Arnold and Katherina M. Rosqueta

The holiday season is here. And in the spirit of the season, millions of people will donate to food drives. And well-intentioned food donations will needlessly leave millions of people hungry. Here's why:

In the traditional food drive, donors are asked to contribute store-bought food. It's then dropped into a collection barrel, piled around a Christmas tree, placed on a church altar, or the like.

For every $10 spent that way, $10 worth of food goes into the charity food distribution system. But if the receiving charity packs and gives out the food to families in standardized boxes, research has shown that as much as half of it isn't used. This is not because the receiving family isn't needy, but because they can't use or don't know how to use some of the food they get.

So that $10 gift may end up providing only $5 worth of actual relief. What's more, because donations to food drives are nearly impossible to document for tax deductions, the donor bears the full cost of the $10 donation even if only $5 worth of food is used.

By contrast, suppose the donor gives money instead of food to a charity serving the hungry. Three things can happen. First, instead of going to the store to buy food, the charity takes the donated funds to an area food bank. There, for every dollar a donor would have spent, the charity can get about $20 worth of food. That's because food banks serve as nonprofit, wholesale-like clearinghouses for the food industry's surplus, charging only a nominal handling fee. So a $10 donation ends up leveraging as much as $200 worth of food for a charity.

Second, instead of packing the food into standardized boxes, the charity can display it in a store-like fashion and permit needy families to choose what they want. That ensures families aren't given food they cannot use.

Finally, if donors claim a tax deduction, their after-tax cost of giving $10 could drop to as little as $7.50. Communities can drop the cost of addressing an area's hunger by 25 percent simply by taking maximum advantage of available tax benefits.

The bottom line is that for the money they would spend on food, donors can feed 20 times more families by providing cash, not cans.

But wait, some argue: Our community food drive engages church members or schoolchildren in a way that writing a check or giving cash simply doesn't. To which we would argue: Now is the time to match traditions with impact by demonstrating something that need not be in short supply: creativity!

Instead of a canned-food drive, have members of your congregation wash out cans, put their donations in them, and bring them up to the altar. Or have schoolchildren volunteer to put the food their financial donations have bought onto the shelves of the local food pantry. Given the amount of food the money could provide, the whole school might be needed to stock the charity's shelves.

In September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual report on household food security. What it shows is that last year, 48.8 million Americans lived in food-insecure households - households that struggle to feed all their members.

In the true spirit of the season, if you really want to help such vulnerable families, go to your local food bank (or to to find one near you) and give it the money you would have used to buy canned food for food drives. That will ensure that fewer families go hungry.

John Arnold is a former executive director of Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank. Katherina M. Rosqueta is the founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Social Policy and Practice. They wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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