Tristin Hopper: In the hands of a food bank purchaser, your $1 is going to help many more people than a can of discarded string beans

Tristin Hopper  |


For the last four years, the National Post has greeted the yuletide season by publishing the video above. With a simple message of maximizing charitable giving by donating money to the food bank instead of canned goods, it is one of our most popular videos of all time, reaching virtually every corner of the English-speaking world.

It has also prompted food banks to caution us that maybe our can-bashing is a little overzealous. “We don’t want to give the impression that (food) donations aren’t needed and appreciated,” Danielle Lalonde with Food Banks Canada told the Post.

This is correct, but the core fact remains: With few exceptions the absolute best way that you can help feed Canada’s hungry is to give your food bank cold, fungible currency. Let us explain …

NOTE: The subtext of this article is to get you to kick some money over to food banks, not to suspend donations entirely. Please use Food Banks Canada’s food bank finder to find your nearest food bank.

The food bank is way better at buying food than you are
The author of this column is a congenitally cheap individual. I buy utility turkeys in bulk, cook them all at once and portion the meat into freezer bags to be used later. I maximize the per-ounce cost of condiments by buying them in gallon quantities. I once had an inside guy at a fruit importer who tipped me off whenever a case of bruised but usable bananas was headed for the dumpster. And yet I must still kneel in awe at a food bank’s ability to stretch a dollar. They buy in bulk, they capitalize on surpluses and they get spectacularly good deals by playing the charity card. For every $1 donated to the Calgary Food Bank, they claim to be able to buy food equivalent to $5 at retail prices. In California, some food banks claim to be able to boost that multiple to $6. One of the most misguided charitable endeavors at this time of year is to go to the grocery store with the goal of explicitly buying food to be tossed into the workplace food hamper. Even the most skilled shopper must appreciate that however many cans of tuna they can buy, a food bank would probably have been able to buy five times as many.

Money doesn’t have to be sorted and stored
If you gather up $15 worth of pennies (that’s 1,500 coins) and dump it in your nearest Salvation Army kettle, the attendant Bell Ringer will smile weakly and thank you for your generosity. Once that mountain of pennies is counted, rolled, transported and deposited, however, it’s entirely possible that your donation actually resulted in a net loss for the Red Shield. A similar problem exists with food donations. Your average box of random pantry items needs to be sorted, stored and shoehorned into a family’s meal plan. While pantry items are better than no pantry items, that sorting isn’t cheap. Two years ago the Greater Vancouver Food Bank revealed that it was costing them up to $40,000 a year to sort out unwanted donations such as half-eaten bread, tinned alligator and Jello packages from the 1960s. In Nunavut, the exorbitant costs of shipping mean that a donated food parcel can end up costing a food bank way more than the value of the food it contains. Money doesn’t have any of these pitfalls. It doesn’t go bad, it doesn’t take up space and it’s not heavy: It sits patiently in a bank account generating more money until it’s needed to buy a pallet of peanut butter or fresh vegetables.

You don’t know what the food bank needs
Have you ever shown up to a potluck where everybody brought kale salad? Food banks face a version of this problem regularly. One month they’re drowning in peanut butter but desperate for tuna, the next they’re neck deep in creamed corn and need canned vegetables. Food banks also need to keep feeding people throughout the year, which makes it a little tricky when much of their donations come in a tidal wave of cans every Christmas. According to U.S. data up to 50 percent of food bank donations are wasted, and the primary reason is because donations do not always jibe with the food needs of a community. Food banks would be more candid about this, but they know that if they look even slightly ungrateful they could swear off a donor for life. One reader emailed the Post with a story of dropping off a hamper of pantry items at a food bank only to be told “what we really need is crackers” by a volunteer. “I now donate elsewhere,” wrote the reader.

If your food bank is inefficient, throwing more inefficiency at them is a terrible plan
Food banks know that many of their donors are happy to contribute food or time, but bristle at the idea of being asked for cash. “Some food banks … spend too much money on salaries & fund-raising. We will not donate money to them,” one reader wrote to the Post in 2016. This is absolutely not true of Food Banks Canada; it has been voted by Charity Intelligence as one of the most impactful spenders of donated money in Canada. But pretend that your local food bank does indeed suffer from financial mismanagement and high overhead costs. If that’s the case, how are these problems helped by following the equally inefficient route of exclusively donating food? As noted above, a dollar spent on food hamper donations at the grocery store could have purchased five times more food in the hands of a food bank purchaser. A loss of 80 per cent in your dollar’s efficiency is a terrible price to pay for mistrust of a charity. The practice makes even less sense when you consider it being applied to other charities. If people don’t trust the Red Cross, it’s not like they assuage their suspicions by only donating bandages and cans of gasoline. Conversely, one way for food banks to get around public mistrust of cash donations is to start allowing donors to contribute to funds in which the money will only be spent on food.

Food drives have their place, but you can still consider whether it’s the best use of your resources
This column should not be taken as an all-purpose indictment of food drives. By holding them, food banks are tapping into a subset of donors. People distrustful of monetary donations, people lured by the pageantry of a “fill the bus” campaign, people strapped for cash who can only donate spare cans from the pantry. If all food drives were shut down, these donors wouldn’t start cutting cheques — they would simply leave. “We are lucky because we are one of the only charities which has three legitimate and needed ways to donate. Food, funds and time,” said Lalonde. But for donors with spare cash who aren’t too interested in the means by which they help the poor, they should absolutely consider swearing off canned good donations. An increasing number of corporate donors are already taking the hint: Instead of dropping off truckloads of food at the food bank each year, they’re now handing out the much more impactful donation of a giant cheque instead.

Food isn’t tax deductible
This is probably the most important point: Nobody’s going to give you a cut on your income taxes because you lobbed a few bouillon cubes into a cardboard box at the office. Not so with monetary donations. On the first $200 a Canadian donates to charity each year, 15 per cent of that is tax deductible. If you go above the $200 threshold in a given year, that rate jumps to 30 per cent. To review: If you hand your food bank a 30 pound office hamper filled with random food, you’re handing over a miniature logistical challenge that may or may not end up on the table of a hungry family. Hand over $20, and the food bank will be able to buy $100 worth of food, they’ll save on processing costs and Ottawa will kick you back up to $6.