One of the big underlying themes of this site is efficiency. If the earth is warming at an alarming rate, then the cost of that, in terms of unlivable parts of the world, a huge increase in storms, as well as the pollution that goes with most fossil fuel burning, to me, is simply not a worthwhile tradeoff. So since we all know it’s going that way, let’s just commit to solar and wind power, make sure public transportation is available, and stop buying so much crap from industries that are adding to our carbon footprint.
In this same vein, earlier this week I attended an event which had an accompanying food drive, and I made the decision not to participate. I don’t want to get all grinchy on you, because I fully appreciate the impulse that makes people want to help out others who are struggling during the holidays. Unfortunately, food drives are a super inefficient way to get food to people who need it. Only about half of this donated food gets used properly, often because the recipients don’t know what to do with the random items they receive. (Sadly, your vegetable broth and capers are not universally desired. And I can’t be the only one who’s struggled to cook an eggplant properly.)
Alternatively, if you send money directly to food banks, they can leverage it as much as 20:1 because they often have access to large amounts of surplus food from industry which they only have to pay a nominal handling fee for. Also, they know what they need and what items are most in demand, while you can only guess.
Why do food drives persist? I think it’s because (a) people prefer the personal touch and (b) many people feel that charitable organizations are inherently untrustworthy and can’t be trusted to use their money wisely, but feel like a can of peas can’t be misused.
While I’m sure there are charities out there that could be run more efficiently (and some that are even outright scams), since we live in the modern age, it’s just not that much trouble to look up non-profits on Charity Navigator to find one that suits you. If you’re looking to feed the hungry, Feeding America (which I sent $75 to instead of donating food earlier) has an excellent rating — 96% of donations going to program expenses — which is almost impossible and unheard of (and not fair to expect, honestly. Above 80% is pretty good.) It would be nice to think that every penny of the $50 sent to a non-profit means $50 worth of food/medicine/after school programs, but fundraising, office space and equipment and staff cost money. Just because it’s $40 or $45 going for actual program expenses itself doesn’t mean the other $10 is spent on hookers and blow. Most of the people I’ve known working for charities took their low-salaried jobs because of a commitment to the cause. Are you going to begrudge them staplers and toilet paper? I know I’m not.
If you want to locate some needy family on your own and drive over to them with a bag full of groceries, I think that’s great. But if you’re going to trust a third party to do the distribution for you, anyway, why not make their jobs easier and just send some cash? The idea of a hungry family hunkering down on Christmas with a box of stuffing and some peas you provided might be a nice one, but I hope you’ll make your decisions this holiday season based on what’s better for the people who stand to benefit from your charity, not for you.
Have a happy holiday season, everyone!