Acton Institute Powerblog

Against canned food drives: When gift-giving is wasteful

Share this article:
Join the Discussion:

During a season such as Christmas, when hyper-consumerism and hyper-generosity often converge in strange and mysterious ways, how much of our gift-giving is inefficient or wasteful? It’s a question that economists continue to ponder, but to which many a gift-giver is prone to shrug.

In one sense, isn’t the whole point to mirror the most extravagant gift of all? Why be concerned about “wasteful” giving?

But if the starting points of our generosity become decidedly apathetic or misaligned with actual human needs, is “gift-giving” really what we’re after?

In a critique one of the Christmas season’s most popular gift-giving pastimes — donating canned goods to food banks — the National Post’s Tristin Hopper offers a compelling case for why economic wisdom always always matters, even in the most mundane acts of generosity during the most charitable time of the year. Alas, the mass movement of giving random assortments of canned goods turns out to be wildly inefficient, not to mention easily replaced with other, more productive methods.

“The simple rules of economics are begging you: Give money to food banks, rather than food,” he says.

Canned goods have a particularly low rate of charitable return. They’re heavy, they’re awkward and they can be extremely difficult to fit into a family’s meal plan. Worst of all, the average consumer is buying their canned goods at four to five times the rock-bottom bulk price that can be obtained by the food bank itself.

That $1 you spent on tuna could have purchased $4 worth of tuna if put in the hands of non-profit employee whose only job is to buy food as cheaply as possible. The savvy buyers at the Calgary Food Bank, for instance, promise that they can stretch $1 into $5.

… And then there’s the logistical nightmare when these boxes show up at the food bank’s loading dock. Put yourself in the place of a food bank that has just accepted an anarchic 40 pound box of random food from an office fundraiser.

The benefits of direct-cash transfers are widely known and increasingly proven. So why do these trends persist?

Hopper concludes that most charities are worried about getting too selective or picky in their requests, which may have the effect of scaring away donors. “Free cans, despite the headache of sorting, are better than no cans at all,” he explains. “…Nothing alienates a good samaritan faster than watching them pull up in a cube van of donated food, only to suggest that ‘maybe next time they just cut a cheque.’”

On the donor side, many are skeptical of how cash donations would be used by the respective nonprofits, worrying that funds might be used for something other than actually feeding families. But Hopper proceeds to push another hypothesis that’s a bit more unsettling, if true.

It doesn’t feel as good to donate money. As much as we like to pretend that charitable giving is a selfless act, a lot of it is driven by the human need to feel special and magnanimous…As donations go, it’s much more satisfying to donate a minivan filled with Ragu than to send a $100 e-transfer.

… [Charities] also know it’s a tougher sell to convince schools and offices to merely pass the hat for the hungry, rather than big photo-worthy gestures like building towers of creamed corn.

The reasons will surely vary from person to person, and such donations may do far more good than harm, regardless. But if we truly want to help our neighbors, is shrugging acceptance of predictable waste the proper place to begin?

Christmas is indeed a time for extravagant generosity, so while we needn’t be anxious or insecure in the gifts we give, we also needn’t be blind or apathetic to their effects. Whether our giving suffers from innocent indifference or a more pernicious degree of self-focus, there will always be room to orient our hearts and hands closer to the needs of our neighbors.

The best gift for others will often seem more inconvenient and less satisfying than our personal preferences or reactionary hunches. But when it is, we needn’t shy away, instead embracing what Hopper calls the “glorious world of anonymous, non-glamourous philanthropy.”

HT: Victor Claar

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Charisma News, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

Comments

  • The canned food is economically inefficient and having talked to a food bank manager she said they prefer monetary donations. However, to move beyond apathy and self-focus, she also acknowledged that there is a social good in particular having children donate some physical food rather than money. Monetary donations tend to be abstract whereas a donation of physical food is concrete and real in a way that brings to light what is given and needed. Moreover, the pyramid of cans beyond a photo-op can become a concrete sign of the unity of the community as a social good.
    In sum, we should focus on those means that most effectively meet the needs of the hungry and poor, however, we should also be careful not to reduce other means to being driven by some personal or character deficiency, ignoring the social and pedagogical goods that are concomitant with those means.