By Chris Costanzo
As someone who happens to know a lot about food banks, people often ask me which one they should donate to, especially now, as images of miles-long lines for food begin to penetrate everyone’s consciousness.
The first thing to note is that while food banks are doing monumental work — meeting an average 59% increase in demand — their ability to feed people has only ever been about one-ninth as effective as the federal government’s. Last year, about 36 million people received an average of about $130 a month in federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, allowing them to participate in the local economy in the most efficient way possible and just like everyone else does — by shopping at the grocery store.
Food banks understand the power of SNAP to address hunger, which is why many of them have teams of people charged with connecting individuals to SNAP benefits. They may also have advocacy arms that organize and engage communities to lobby for expansions and improvements to SNAP. A strong advocacy agenda indicates a food bank has an interest in advancing policies that address not just hunger, but also its root cause of poverty.
Then there is the issue of healthy food. For years following the creation of the first food bank about 50 years ago, the focus of food banks was simply on feeding the need by serving straight-up calories, even if they came in the form of sheet cake and potato chips. Now that diet has been identified as the leading driver of improved public health, food banks are making a concerted effort to ramp up the amount of fresh produce and healthy protein they distribute.
The food banks doing the best job of distributing healthy food have nutrition policies that guide decisions on the types of donated food they will accept. Food banks with formal policies — especially those that explicitly ban unhealthy items like soda and candy — are more likely to distribute greater amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables, compared to those with informal policies or none at all. While food banks nationwide are embracing healthy food as a goal, only about one-third actually have formal nutrition policies in place.
Many people seeking to make a food-bank donation naturally gravitate toward Feeding America, the national network of 200 food banks and their nearly 75 affiliates located all over the country. One of the top ten charitable organizations in the United States, Feeding America facilitates donations of healthy food nationwide from farmers, grocers and processors to food banks, in addition to acting as an important source of hunger research and advocacy.
Fewer people are aware of organizations that offer alternatives to food distribution as a solution to hunger. Another nationwide organization, WhyHunger, sees hunger as a condition tied to racial and economic injustice and accordingly, works to galvanize people in grassroots movements aimed at increasing access to nutritious food. Food banks in the WhyHunger camp are seeking to shift the charitable food model from one that emphasizes the logistics of food distribution to one more focused on social justice.
While the massive drive-through distributions of the last few weeks have made the news, food banks typically distribute food through pantries, which perform the one-on-one work of welcoming clients, helping them get their food, and building trusted relationships. The local food pantry represents the face of the charitable food world for people in need; it’s where they go to get help. Pantries offer the advantage of quickly putting donated money directly to use in the community.
Chances are, there is a pantry closer to you than you think, though no single list is available with information on every one of the estimated 35,000 or so pantries across the country. Resources to check include an independent website called foodpantries.org, an interactive map of food pantry sites from WhyHunger, and AmpleHarvest.org, which exists mostly to connect home gardeners to food pantries, but serves the dual purpose of listing more than 8,000 pantries.
Any donation to a food bank or pantry is a good one these days. Hunger is complex enough that your donation is not only about ending hunger — it can also encompass your attitudes toward government assistance, healthy food, logistical efficiency, social justice, or community development. By donating with greater intention, you may help to lessen the need for charitable food in the first place.
Chris Costanzo is the founder and editor of the non-profit publication, Food Bank News, based in Maplewood, N.J.