Thursday, November 1, 2012

Stop donating canned goods

America, after all, is not a country stricken with famine. There’s no objective shortage of food, in other words, that makes it vitally important for you to draw down the stockpile in your kitchen cabinet. Indeed, many of us don’t even have that much food socked away, which leads to us going out to buy extra food in order to give it away. But having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk.

But it’s even worse than that. All across America, charitable organizations and the food industry have set up mechanisms through which emergency food providers can get their hands on surplus food for a nominal handling charge. Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania, explains that food providers can get what they need for “pennies on the dollar.” She estimates that they pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail. You’d be doing dramatically more good, in basic dollars and cents terms, by eating that tuna yourself and forking over a check for half the price of a single can of Chicken of the Sea.

Beyond the economies of scale are the overhead costs. Charities are naturally reluctant to turn down donations for fear of alienating supporters or demoralizing well-wishers, but the reality is that dealing with sporadic surges of cans is a logistical headache. A nationwide network of food banks called Feeding America gingerly notes on its website that “a hastily organized local food drive can actually put more strain on your local food bank than you imagine.” Food dropped off by well-meaning citizens needs to be carefully inspected and sorted. A personal check, by contrast, can be used to order what’s needed without placing extra burdens on the staff.

A lot of waste also occurs on the other side of the food-donation equation. Rosqueta observes that a surprisingly large proportion of food—as much as 50 percent—provided to needy families in basic boxes winds up going uneaten. ... Social service providers know their clients better and, with cash in hand, can pull together items people are likely to want and let them pick what they need, cutting down on waste.
--Matthew Yglesias, Slate, on why you should just write a check