Charity food distribution programs are remarkably adaptable – some have buildings and paid staff, some have one but not the other, and some thrive without either. The need for food, however, is inexorable, and the limits of an organization’s food supply often define the scope of its operations.
There are four primary sources of food for charity organizations:
Soliciting individual donations (often in the form of canned goods) is a traditional standby of charity food programs. Unfortunately, most items donated to food drives are/were purchased from a store at full retail price, placing the cost of sustainably securing enough food to meet the need well beyond the means of most communities. Food drives also tend to be a poor source of important perishable foods, like fresh fruits and vegetables.
Food drives are primarily useful for procuring relatively small quantities of very specific items, or as educational opportunities for children.
Some charities build relationships with local businesses, like restaurants, who then donate their edible leftovers. This food tends to have a very short shelf life, making it most suitable for programs that can immediately turn around and serve it to their clients, like soup kitchens and shelters.
While food saved through food rescue is generally free in and of itself, the logistics of regularly picking up and properly handling product (maintaining it at safe temperatures, etc.) from many sources at odd hours tends to make large-scale food rescue impractical for most organizations.
Many charities raise money with which to purchase food. This has several advantages compared to conducting food drives:
- Purchasing can lead to economies of scale, as buying in bulk is often less expensive than purchasing individual products at retail, especially when done cooperatively through a regional food bank or similar entity.
- The charity’s supporters, having made their donations in an easily documentable fashion, can receive tax benefits, which reduces the cost to the community.
- The charity has more control over what food it receives, and when.
However, even at bulk food prices, purchasing by itself will not usually yield enough food to meet the need in a community on a sustainable basis.
Food banking is rather like food rescue, but on a much larger scale. Food Banks (and Feeding America, their national association) are nonprofit organizations that deal primarily with food manufacturers and distributors, gleaning product in quantities that would overwhelm most individual charities. Food Banks then offer the goods they have rescued to local hunger related charities, charging only a small per-pound shared maintenance fee.
From the perspective of a food pantry or other charity, using a Food Bank is a lot like purchasing, with the key differences being that a Food Bank’s inventory changes more quickly than that of a grocery store, and that Food Bank food costs considerably less.
Financial donations used towards acquiring Food Bank food are eligible for the same tax benefits as those made towards purchasing food commercially, and some states offer additional Food Bank related tax benefits.
Using a Food Bank will allow most charity food programs to acquire and distribute at least five to ten times as much food as they could through any other means.
To develop a food supply adequate to meet the need in their communities in a cost-effective manner, most charities should acquire at least 3/4 of their food through their local Food Bank, with the remainder coming from either small-scale food rescue or the targeted purchasing (either directly or through food drives) of specific items frequently requested by clients which the Food Bank does not regularly offer.