The Absolutely Best Ways to Donate to a Food Drive

Want to give effectively to a food drive to a local food bank?

The Absolutely Best Ways to Donate to a Food Drive. We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So (Photo: Cans of food stacked in very large piles)

You rarely have the opportunity to decide how to spend your co-workers’ hard-earned money. But as the one responsible for running our yearly food drive, I wanted both them and the food bank to get the best bang for their buck. Just randomly picking out whatever I felt like at the grocery store wasn’t going to cut it. But how could I donate in the most effective way possible?

I’m not the only one who struggles with this question. Thanksgiving and Christmas are the “food drive holidays,” where everyone from churches to Boy Scouts troops are collecting cans to donate to food banks. Unfortunately, the donations to these drives aren’t as helpful as they could be because people just aren’t aware of the most effective ways to give.

Between my experiences running the food drives and reading up on the subject, I’ve found some really handy rules to guide your food drive giving.

1) Give money.

Seriously. According to food banks themselves (including one of my favorites, Washington D.C. charity Bread for the City), giving cash helps them much more than canned goods. Food banks can often get food much cheaper than you could ever buy it from the grocery store. An article in Slate quotes the director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy as saying most food banks can obtain 20 times more food than what an ordinary person could buy with the same amount of money.

In addition, food banks often need to cover their overhead costs, like rent and staff. All of the food in the world won’t do any good if the organization doesn’t have somewhere to store it or people working in the office. Many of them also do non-emergency food work, such as workforce development, healthy eating outreach, and medical services.

Unfortunately, giving cash isn’t always an option. For example, the federal government runs a food drive where you can only donate physical items. If you’re in a similar situation, the rest of the items on this list are helpful to keep in mind.

2) Don’t raid your own cupboard.

Most of the time when you get food out of your own pantry, it’s because you never got around to eating it yourself. If you don’t want to eat it, it’s likely no one else does either. That’s especially true of food that’s passed its expiration date. The food bank can’t pass out food you should have thrown out long ago – they’ll just have to throw it out instead.

Similarly, passing on exotic or specialty items is not going to be helpful. Low-income folks that go to the food bank are often extremely pressed for time and resources. Unless it’s obvious how to use it, they won’t be able to use it well.

3) Buy the same quality that you would for yourself.

There’s nothing wrong with buying bags of dried beans or generic store brands, so long as you’d be happy with having those in your own cupboard. Personally, I purchase organic canned goods for food drives when I can because it supports agriculture I believe in.

4) Pool your money and buy in bulk.

If you can’t donate cash, you can at least make that money stretch a little further. At work, I offered my co-workers the convenience of donating to a Costco run. As a result, we were able to purchase a lot more than a bunch of individuals would have.

5) Keep people with food sensitivities and allergies in mind.

An increasing number of children are hungry; an increasing number of children have severe allergies. There must be some crossover between those two categories. It’s hard enough to not have enough food, but it’s even worse when you literally can’t eat the food available without dying or getting very sick.

In addition, allergen and/or gluten-free foods are often much more expensive than their conventional counterparts, making them even more difficult for families or food banks to purchase. Try to stick at least a couple of gluten-free and/or allergen-free items in your basket.

6) Stick to healthy staples.

Many food banks are trying to promote healthy eating, with good reason. Unhealthy food is consistently faster, cheaper, and more calorie-rich than healthy food, making it an easy choice in the short-term if you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. Providing healthy, basic foods that can be used in simple meals makes it easier for time-stressed, resource-poor folks to eat more healthfully while still getting enough calories.

However, this doesn’t mean buying a lot of diet food. The best way to determine what you should get is to follow the recommendations of the food bank itself. If the organization doesn’t provide recommendations, this one from the Capital Area Food Bank is a great start.

7) Buy non-food items if the food bank accepts them.

Many low-income folks need hygiene and paper items just as much as food, including soap, paper towels, and feminine products. You can also think about running a diaper drive! Diapers are very expensive and parents can’t use food stamps to buy them. A staggering number of families are forced to choose between adequately feeding their kids and diapering them.

You can also think about running a diaper drive! Diapers are very expensive and parents can’t use food stamps to buy them. A staggering number of families are forced to choose between adequately feeding their kids and diapering them.

8) Find out if the food bank will accept perishable foods and if there’s a way to deliver them effectively.

Most food banks get plenty of canned goods, but may also want and need fresh produce. Obviously, you don’t want to give them days-old bread or vegetables, but there may be a place for some creative giving. For example, you might be able to participate in a gleaning session at a local farm, where you pick extra produce that the farmers leave out for that purpose.

Our local food bank also has a stand at our town’s farmers’ market where they collect food that shoppers buy and donate right there. You may be able to run a stand at a local market for them!

9) Use the food drive as the start, not the end of the conversation.

When I headed my office’s effort, I used every email reminder as an opportunity to raise awareness. I pointed out how common hunger is and how many children are affected in our area. I talked about the good work of the recipient and how they work to provide emergency food supplies as well as other services.

Starting conversations about hunger, as well as its causes and effects, can actually have a much more lasting impact on your community than the food you actually collect.

In the end, our office actually collected more food than any other one in our division! I like to think that our thoughtful approach towards food bank donations made a major difference in some families’ lives.

For more on how to effectively carry out community service, check out How to Teach Kids to Serve Others at Christmas. Be sure to follow our Facebook page

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