Cans or cash? How to best help your local food bank

Click to play video: 'Food, cash and time: things you can donate to your local food bank'
Food, cash and time: things you can donate to your local food bank
WATCH: Here’s what food you should donate to food banks this holiday season – and all year, too – Dec 3, 2017

It’s the time of year when many Canadians make the extra effort to ensure happy holidays for all — but is tossing a can of food into the office collection bin putting strain on a food bank or helping to keep it afloat?

Despite some news articles and researchers suggesting that food donations by individuals and organizations have become a burden on food banks, experts in the field say the more the better of both cash and food.

“I think people should donate what they want to donate,” said Gail Nyberg, executive director of the Daily Bread Food Bank, Canada’s largest food bank and food distribution hub.

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Around 800,000 Canadians — a third of them children — use food banks every month, said Marzena Gersho, director of communications at Food Banks Canada.

“Who’s using it? All kinds of Canadians,” said Gersho.

Food banks tend to be well-oiled machines that have systems in place to sort and distribute all kinds of food, said Gersho, with “a lot of infrastructures to manage donations.”

The idea that food donations are cumbersome doesn’t make sense.

“Food is fundamental to what they do and food banks collect millions of pounds of food every year, especially during the holiday period, to be able to share with people in need in their communities,” said Gersho.

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Donation bins a visual reminder of need

There is a lot of competition for financial donations out there, and no shortage of worthy charities.

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“Think about how many charities in every community ask for dollars. How do you then, you know raise your hand and say, ‘why don’t you think about us?'” said Gersho.

A donation bin at the grocery store or office is a reminder to people that hunger exists in our communities.

“It’s an additional way for food banks to raise awareness of such an important need which is feeding our neighbours,” Gersho explained.

Food drives also help foster relationships.

“One of the important things that food drives do is they build community relationships,” said Gersho.

Local fire halls and police stations are common drop-off spots for donations, while children get an early lesson in philanthropy through food drives at schools. These result in valuable interactions and learning experiences, said Gersho.

“I don’t think you’d have the same kind of awareness-raising or relationships being developed if it was just asking the public for financial donations.”

WATCH: Food bank demand spiking across Canada

Click to play video: 'Food bank demand spiking across Canada'
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Find out what your local food bank needs

Smaller organizations are less elastic than their larger counterparts when it comes to coordinating donations — and quickly notice when giving trends shift.

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“People are beginning to change their donations slightly,” said Kimberley Vaz, coordinator at Good Food Centre at Toronto’s Ryerson University.

Vaz said donations of cash and grocery store gift cards have increased — as have physical food items during the holidays.

“The influx of canned goods around the holidays can be a lot,” said Vaz. “Donations are always welcome, but it’s really challenging to coordinate sometimes the picking up, dropping off, the storing of physical goods.”

However, it’s a balancing act.

“I don’t want to say ‘oh please, do not ever donate a canned item.’ Because if we were to suddenly switch to cash-based donation system only, it would require us as coordinators to suddenly do a lot of pricing,” said Vaz.

“We don’t actually have systems in place to order canned goods. All of a sudden if we just stopped receiving them we’d have to adapt to that, so that would be challenging.”

Vaz recommends picking up the phone or checking an organization’s website to see what they need.

“Fresh stuff tends to be scarce…so when you make cash donations it allows food banks to purchase fresh items for their community items throughout the year.”

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What to donate

It’s true that some food ends up being discarded, from both individuals and corporate donors, said Nyberg. There are guidelines for donations, staples that are both high in nutritional value and have a long shelf life.

Many food banks get the majority of their donations from food manufacturers, or through bulk deals allowing them to “have better buying power than the average person wandering around the grocery store,” said Nyberg.

What donations do, both financial and those random food items, is fill the gaps — and add a little luxury. Think about the things you like to buy for yourself or your family when making food donations.

“Kids love to have…a Rice Krispies square in their lunch. With money that’s donated to purchase food, I guarantee Daily Bread isn’t going to go out and buy Rice Krispies squares,” said Nyberg.

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“But just because you’re low income doesn’t mean you can’t have a treat.”

As for monetary donations, they don’t just buy food, they help keep the lights on.

“Trucks need to be put on the road, heat needs to be paid, rent to needs to be paid,” said Gersho. “The funds for all of those operational costs are really, really important to be able to make sure that doors can stay open.”

For those wary that cash donations are fattening up executives’ paycheques rather than helping the community, there are ways to check how effective the charity you’re donating to is putting your dollars to work. Or, you can just ask.

“People have a right to call up any charity and ask, ‘how do you plan on investing these dollars?'” said Gersho.

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