Like many people I try to remember to pick up a few non-perishable food items to drop into the food bank donation bin on my way out of the supermarket, especially ’round this time of year. Upon further reflection it occurred to me that such an act, while commendable, is a bit of a symbolic gesture. Sure, if everybody gave a few items of food, then the amount collected might be enough, but of course not everybody does, and in reality not everybody could, if only because it would overwhelm the food bank’s logistical capabilities: a mountain of randomly-donated food would take far too much effort and expense to sort and transport.
That got me thinking about efficiency and scale. The amount I donate to some other charities would buy a pallet or more of food at wholesale prices. Nobody collects cans of soup and boxes of cereal to send to the hungry in impoverished nations across the globe, because as they’ve long ago figured out, it would be monumentally inefficient. Instead, people donate money, which can be collected and moved with very little overhead cost, and the money gets used to purchase food in bulk in a way that it can be quickly and cost-effectively delivered to those who need it. So what makes us think that dropping cans into a bin on the way out of the grocery store is a good idea?
Maybe it’s a sense of directness: we may find it emotionally rewarding to think that an item of food has gone from our hands into those of a needy family. It’s the next best thing to volunteering at a food bank or soup kitchen and feeding people directly, which many of us are unable or—let’s face it—unwilling to do. Rationally speaking, however, there’s no arguing with the fact that money talks.
To that end I decided that rather than trying to remember to get food for the donation bin, I’d donate money directly to the food bank. Sure, throwing money may be the “easy” way out, but in this case it’s easiest for me and easiest for the food bank and ultimately for the people it serves, so everybody comes out on the winning end… Except maybe the supermarket, who’s lost a few pennies’ worth of profit on the items that I didn’t buy for the donation bin.
My local food bank—Second Harvest of Santa Clara—has a “virtual food drive” site set up to receive online monetary donations. The “Virtual Food Drive” shopping page is fake—you don’t really choose what items to donate, your money just goes into a pool that’s used to purchase needed items, which makes much more sense anyway—and some of the “Our Price” vs. “Retail Price” numbers are a bit dubious, but nevertheless the economies of scale and the above arguments still apply. Wherever you are, find your local food bank and contribute however you can—it’s that much more important in these tough times.