‘Puppies aren’t just for Christmas” goes the old saying.
The same applies to food banks.
Yukoners show their generosity every Christmas with a surge in donations to charities of every type, including food banks. This is wonderful.
But hunger isn’t a December-only problem. The Whitehorse Food Bank distributes more than 450 food hampers a month. Every month.
Unfortunately, as food banks around the country know, donations can drop off sharply after Christmas.
And this timing problem isn’t the only challenge for food banks. They also suffer from two others: receiving the wrong “mix” of food and the inherent inefficiency of in-kind donations.
Some may think that soulless, antiseptic concepts like “efficiency” shouldn’t come anywhere near a caring institution like a food bank. But efficiency is critical if we want to help as many hungry fellow citizens as we can.
We can illustrate the three problems with an example.
Say you are laid off just before Christmas. Your kindly neighbours are concerned and bring over three cases of Green Giant baby corn cobs they had in the basement. Then they drive their Cadillac Escalade to the airport and get on the plane for a few months of relaxation in Hawaii.
This illustrates three problems. First you wonder how many servings a day of baby corn cobs constitute a balanced diet. Secondly, you wonder what you are going to eat if the baby corn cobs run out before your neighbours come back from Maui. And finally, you realize that three cases of baby corn cobs cost $143.28 retail, money you could have spent more sensibly yourself.
Economists would never suggest that the food-support system of a city be supplied by an annual clearing out of unwanted food from larders around town. Sadly, these economists would not be moved by the fact that the annual larder clearing was timed to coincide with a very special event 2,000 years previous.
Instead, in ugly economist language, they would say that the food bank’s income was “lumpy” and needed to be “smoothed” to match its regular monthly hamper production. They would propose that donors give every month.
Economists would also point out the inefficiency of having donors go to the store, pay full mark-up on food they select themselves, and then drop if off at collection points scattered across town for the overworked food bank volunteers to pick up.
You see, if you pay $1.99 for a can of Cloverleaf light yellowfin tuna and then give it to the food bank, you in effect have donated $1.99. But some of your money went into the cost of delivering groceries to the shelf of your local store while more went into profits for the wholesaler and grocer.
This is nice for the grocery store owners, including the wealthy families behind two of Whitehorse’s most popular locations. But if you gave $1.99 to the food bank directly, it could buy in bulk at a cheaper price than you. Some food banks have relationships with wholesalers to buy healthy but over-supplied products at prices that might be less than half what you pay at the till.
This means your $1.99 can of tuna could have been more than twice as much food (and even more when you consider that cash donations are tax deductible).
Giving money also lets the food bank solve the baby corn cob problem. They can buy food people need instead of what is clogging your larder. According to its website, the food bank in Whitehorse needs things like rice, peanut butter, dry soup and canned beans. They do not list baby corn cobs, sliced water chestnuts, canned mandarin orange slices, maraschino cherries and other delectables that people donate.
Money donations also use up less volunteer time, since the food bank can buy the food it wants instead of having some volunteers drive around town to pick up food that must be thrown out when other volunteers at the warehouse read the “best before” date.
Of course, there is a lot to be said for the act of giving. It is important for children to see their parents volunteering and giving generously to those in need. But instead of a hamper drive next Christmas, an economist would suggest a cash gift to the food bank and then volunteering in sorting and delivering the hampers.
This whole topic of efficiency is a sensitive one for food banks. It is hard for them to tell people not to give baby corn cobs, since they are trying to encourage people to be generous. The international relief folks have a similar problem, sometimes being deluged in canned goods and clothing donations when what they really need is money to quickly get the essentials to a far away disaster zone.
Despite the politeness, cash donations are always welcome. “It’s lighter than a bag of canned beans, more practical than a commemorative plate and more personal than a back-scratcher or a candle,” is how the Whitehorse Food Bank phrased it in their Christmas advertising this year. So if you want to help the food bank, eat your own baby corn cobs and sign up for its monthly donation plan at www.whitehorsefoodbank.ca.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.