How to feed more people with your food drive

It’s the holiday season, and that means holiday food drives. All over the country, schools, churches, and other organizations hold drives to collect non-perishable foodstuffs for food pantries to feed hungry people during the holidays. Many CHARACTER COUNTS! organizations hold drives to help support the Pillars of Caring and Citizenship.

But if you want to increase the impact of your food drive, you may want to collect financial donations instead. Why? Because it will go farther, and be able to feed more hungry people, according to the Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank, a highly effective non-profit that earned a top four-star rating from Charity Navigator for its financial efficiency, accountability, and transparency. (Their research has also been studied and endorsed by the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, which identifies best practices for donors large and small to make the most of their charity dollars.)

Every local food pantry, soup kitchen, and other charity that feeds hungry people is eligible to obtain food from a large regional food bank that services their area, for much lower cost than you can buy food at retail from your grocer. Through the power of bulk wholesale purchasing, the regional food bank can negotiate very low prices on big quantities (just like your favorite big-box warehouse). The food bank also coordinates and handles very large donations from food companies on behalf of the whole region. In turn, your local food pantry or soup kitchen obtains food and supplies at very low cost from the food bank.

So when you spend a dollar at your local grocery store on a can of beans and give it to a food pantry, the pantry has a can of beans. (And a volunteermust spend time and gas organizing, packing, and transporting that can and the other donations.) But if you give a dollar to the food pantry, the pantry can get several cans of beans, some boxes of cereal, milk, and maybe even some fresh produce. The dollar feeds more people.

And that difference is crucially important. The reality is that demand at food pantries has increased more than 30% nationwide since the economic downturn of 2008. Pantries all over the country have had shut down temporarily, or limit the number of hungry people they serve, because there aren’t enough resources to go around. Paying full cost for food is never going to work to meet the demand that exists. That’s inefficient. If every food pantry is going to be able to feed every hungry person that comes to them for help, then it will require communities to leverage their resources to make them as powerful as possible – and that means bulk purchasing, made possible by cash donations.

Food donations to organizations that serve hungry people will always be appreciated. Donating food, showing caring, and being involved in your community is never a bad thing to do, or to teach children. Sometimes, donating unused items from their kitchen cupboards is easier for people who do not have extra cash to share.

But if you would like increase the impact of your dollar, and help to feed more people for the same amount of money, it’s worth considering whether your food drive could take a new approach. The Waste Not Want Not project at the West Michigan Food Bank recommends a few ways to consider helping your donors think differently about their holiday donations:

■ Assemble a display of $1 in food bank food and take a picture of it to circulate as a teaching aid. Try it with a 1-pound can of powdered Similac, a 16-ounce box of Total cereal, a loaf of bread, some PopTarts, a small jar of salad dressing, some popcorn snacks and some fresh produce. When people see how much further their dollars will stretch, they are easy to coax into giving money instead of food.
■ In churches where children traditionally carry food to the altar, ask people to wash out an empty can and put their check in it so that the image of food and feeding is preserved while the dollars help 20 times more.
■ Develop some money collection envelopes printed to look like a can on one side.
We are creative enough to develop new traditions, which graciously replace canned good drives with more cost-effective measures.

You might also consider talking with the pantry or soup kitchen that you plan to donate to, and get their perspective on the matter.

What are some ways that you reinforce messages of caring for others during the holiday season and year round?

For more information on how food pantries can become more efficient and more effective in their communities, check out this fascinating guide from the West Michigan Food Bank: Charity Food Programs That Can End Hunger in America