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Five Reasons Cash, Not Cans, Helps the Hungry

New York Cityu2019s Food Bank, which is one of the largest in the nation, says there are 100,000 more people in need today than there were six years ago, at a time when there are fewer food banks as a result of the recession.

Food stamp benefits for about 48 million Americans were cut by $5 billion as of November 1 and, across the United States, food banks are reporting that more people are lining up at their doors.

In New York City, a food pantry in Brooklyn reported a one-third increase in the number of people seeking donations. A food bank in East Harlem said there had been a 25 percent rise in people in need in the five months preceding the cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). New York City’s Food Bank, which is one of the largest in the nation, says there are 100,000 more people in need today than there were six years ago, at a time when there are fewer food banks as a result of the recession.

Margarette Purvis, the Food Bank’s president, says that, while giving food (whether in the form of canned goods, boxes of pasta or turkeys) may make you feel more virtuous than just clicking “donate” on an organization’s website, giving the cans you’ve had sitting in your cabinet for months is just not as effective to feed the hungry as donating a check or cash for a couple of reasons.

1. Distributing and storing donated food is a complicated process.

While canned goods were indeed what most people gave and what food banks accepted, organizations that feed the hungry are now striving to provide those who come to their doors with good nutrition in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables. These require refrigeration, which adds to costs. One food bank notes that much of the fresh produce that it receives is only suitable for compost (which is all right, as it also runs an organic farm).

Giving actual food means that some one has to help sort, package and distribute it. Those items you drop off to a donations box are “high touch,” as Purvis explains, as the “involvement of too many hands driv[es] up costs and reduc[es] efficiency.”

2. Grocers can predict buying patterns more accurately.

Thanks to software and other tracking tools, stores can anticipate supply and demand more accurately and end up with less overstock to donate.

In addition, more food is also being sent to “secondary markets” such as dollar stores or onto countries with less stringent regulations about expiration dates.

3. Cash donations can help food banks better meet the needs of those who seek them out.

In Aurora, Colorado, Maureen Sampson is the lone paid staffer at the Friends of St. Andrew Hospitality Center. She can use cash donations to buy food from places like the Food Bank of the Rockies, where whatever funds she has “go a lot further than they would at a local grocery store.”

Hampson also notes that, with cash, she can purchase items that the center is low on, such as applesauce or fruit and provide a “good balance” of items in the food baskets that the center passes out.

4. Food banks are reporting that more people are going hungry on a regular basis.

New York City’s Food Bank was created in 1983 primarily to offer homeless men assistance. Now, the majority of those in need are working families.

Surveys by the organization and by Feeding America, which supplies food to local food banks, have found that most clients visit food pantries for continued assistance rather than temporary need. As one survey (pdf) says, “almost half of its food pantries and soup kitchens were forced to turn visitors away at some point last year, with 83 percent blaming a lack of food.”

5. More cuts could still be ahead for SNAP.

Back in 2009, Congress approved a “boost” in benefits for all those covered under SNAP as part of the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act. But this November, the benefits expired.

It is the case that the increase in SNAP benefits was meant to be temporary. But as the Pew Charitable Trusts say, demand for assistance from food banks remains almost three times what it was in 2000. On top of the $5 billion in cuts to SNAP that occured on November 1, the program faces further potential reductions of $4 billion to $40 billion, according to the New York Times.

There are reasons to donate food to food banks. Organizations like City Harvest are hard at work right now seeking to rescue some of the 46 million pounds of excess food (60 percent produce, 75 percent nutrient-dense) that New York City generates in just one year. By registering with City Harvest, anyone in the food industry (restaurants, wholesalers, green markets, bakeries, caterers, hospitals, corporate cafeterias and canned food drives) can have 100 pounds of food (or more) picked up to help feed the more than one million New Yorkers who go hungry.

For those of us who can’t donate quite that many pounds of food, a check, cash or click of a donate button can be a way to give and make sure that no one has to go hungry during the holidays.