Why Food Banks Need You to Donate Cash, Not Cans, to Help the Hungry

A box of canned goods.
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You see them everywhere this time of year: boxes, bins and barrels yawning in bank lobbies, church foyers and office kitchens, hoping for your donations of nonperishable foods.

Do you feel compelled to detour from your daily tasks to pick up a few cans of lima beans or a jar of peanut butter? Or will you rummage through your cabinets for a can of chickpeas your old roommate left behind?

Or have you ever considered donating straight-up cash to that worthy cause instead?

Food drives are noble, but they may not be the best way to get food to those in need.

Sorry, but Food Drives Are Inefficient

In 2016, about 15.6 million households in the U.S. struggled with food insecurity, meaning they don’t always have enough food to sufficiently feed everyone in that household. At the same time, an absurd amount of edible food gets tossed in the U.S. each year.

What can the average person do to help? Organizing or donating to a food drive seems like a great option — after all, you’re able to take a small physical step you can see. It’s right there! The piles of food are right there, and they’re going to a place where they can feed people in need. And if you’re a savvy shopper, you’ve used coupons or otherwise gotten a deal on those cans and boxes.

So why do we keep seeing headlines like this????

Food bank says to donate money instead of food

For the love of God, stop donating canned goods to the food bank

Can the Cans: Why food drives are a terrible idea

It’s because food drives may mean well, but they’re not the most efficient way to feed the hungry.

A hodgepodge of donated goods requires work to transport, sort and distribute, and food banks are already often understaffed or struggling to retain volunteer help.

On top of that, canned and nonperishable food isn’t necessarily the healthiest. Feeding America reports that food bank recipients most frequently request milk, and fresh fruits and vegetables. These items aren’t suited for that donation bin that might sit in your apartment building’s lobby for a month.

In a televised interview, the director of one Iowa food bank said that her organization can often get food for half the price you’d pay at the grocery store or less.

Genevieve Ruitort, chief development officer of Los Angeles’ Westside Food Bank, confirmed that food banks often pay less. “We buy food on a wholesale level, and we work with farmers so we can take the dollar you might spend on a single can of beans, and turn it into exponentially more food,” she said in a segment on “Adam Ruins Everything.” The TruTV show debunks misconceptions about how the world — including canned food drives — works.

The are worse things you could do than host or donate to a food drive. You could take your cans of beans and throw them directly into the nearest body of water, for example.

But the greatest impact you can make to reduce America’s food security problem is giving cash — no matter how small the amount.

Lisa Rowan is a senior writer and producer at The Penny Hoarder.