What do you do to fight hunger?

For most people, the answer is going to the store to buy food to donate to their local food pantry.  And for most food pantries, it’s asking their supporters to buy them specific items to put in a standardized food box or bag.

There is a better way

Poster_Hi_Res_black_border-smallerFood banks were created to collect donations of edible products the food industry doesn’t want to or can’t sell and then distribute that food to charity agencies that feed people in need.  Along the way, everybody benefits.  The companies get an extra tax write-off. The agencies can get lots more food because they just help pay for transportation and storage costs.  The agencies’ supporters become financial donors who can deduct their donations from their taxes.  And in the end, the people who need help can get a lot more of it.

But for an agency to really take advantage of a food bank requires a completely different way of doing business:

Standardized food bags or boxes? Forget ‘em. With such a wide and changing variety of food available, there’s no way and no reason to replicate the old experience. The best way to get the food out the door is to let clients choose what to take home with them. (You can read about easy-to-implement variations on this practice here.)

Limits on how often people can get food or how much they can take?  Toss ‘em.  With so much food available at so little cost, there’s no need to hoard it to keep some on hand for each new individual.

You can find our full set of recommendations for how a pantry ought to operate here, or the highlights here, but for now, let’s see how it all plays out:

A Tale of Two Churches
Imagine two churches across the street from one another. Both of them are aware of people in the neighborhood and in their congregation who are suffering from unemployment, low wages, debt, and other problems such that they periodically have trouble getting enough food to eat. So both churches decide to provide such people with help.

Church X

Decides to procure food to give to needy families by asking the members of the church to buy food at the store and to bring it with them to the  church for the church’s food pantry.

So the members do that, spending $5,000 over the course of a year. They receive no tax benefit for their gifts, so the after-tax cost is $5,000.

For their $5,000, the members are able to buy about 3,500 lbs. of food for the pantry.

The pantry lovingly assembles standardized 50 lb. food boxes.

70 families are given those standardized food boxes. As much as half of the food ends up not being used.

Bottom Line: At a cost of $5,000, Church X has reduced hunger in the community by about 1,750 lbs. = 1,750 meals.

Church Y

Decides to procure food to give to needy families by asking the members of the church to donate funds onto its account at the Food Bank so that the church’s food pantry can obtain food there.

So the members do that, spending $5,000 over the course of a year.  Their gifts qualify for up to a 25% deduction on their Federal taxes, so the after-tax cost to them is as little as $3,750.

With that $5,000 on its account, the pantry is able to draw approximately 35,700 lbs. of food from the Food Bank.

The pantry lovingly stocks its store-like shelves with the food.

714 families are invited/permitted to select 50 lbs. of food they can use.  All of the food ends up being used.

Bottom Line: At a cost of as little as $3,750, Church Y has reduced hunger in the community by about 35,700 lbs. = 35,700 meals.

During the worst economic downturn in half a century, which approach makes the most sense?

Which approach does the pantry you support use? Which approach would you want used if your family was hungry?

Ready to work with a food bank?

If you’re in West Michigan or the Upper Peninsula, click here to find the appropriate contact.  Otherwise, use Feeding America’s food bank locator.