Would you feed your own kid the same food you donate to food pantries?

by Christina on November 24, 2010

Last year at about this time, my daughter and I were in the grocery store, buying items for a local food drive. After I threw a few bags of brown rice in the cart, Tess asked me why brown and not white. “Because it’s healthier,” I answered, “and it’s what we eat.” Then I told her that we help people not only by donating food, but by making sure it’s healthy food. Food we’d actually eat ourselves.

Logic even a 6-year-old could understand. So why don’t more of us get it?

White rice is the least of it. Most donations to food pantries are chemical-filled, non-nutritive, far removed from real food. They’re whatever’s cheapest, on sale and, let’s face it, the rejects in the back of our cabinets. Our regional Girl Scout council this year is even encouraging people to buy Girl Scout cookies and donate them to local food banks. Call me a killjoy, but I think that’s absurd.

According to “Household Food Security in the United States”, a report just released by the USDA, almost 15% of households had trouble getting enough food at some point in 2009, the highest level of food insecurity since 1995. Another study, Feeding America’s “Hunger in America 2010,” found that the number of people seeking emergency food assistance has increased 46% since 2006. And the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act now being debated in the U.S. House would pay for childhood nutrition programs by cutting food-stamp funding, a crisis of conscience for us all.

So, yes, I know. Any food is better than no food. But calories-in-lieu-of-nourishment isn’t sustainable. And it isn’t moral. Especially when you’re in a position to do something about it. So when we were shopping last year with a list from the food pantry that requested specific taco kits and other heavily processed foods, I found myself returning box after can after bag to the store shelf. It was seriously depressing to read the ingredients labels and know I would never feed them to my daughter. There was no way I was buying them for someone else’s child, either.

Which meant I shopped how I’ve been shopping for food pantries for years. Simple staples like the brown rice, dried beans, tomato sauce, vegetable stock, natural peanut butter, oatmeal. But this time Tess was along, and damn if her questions didn’t make me mull questions of my own. Did going off-list mean my donations would be wasted? Was I forcing my values on other people? Would my little contribution even matter?

The truth is, I don’t know. But I do know that this year — spurred in part by that aisle soul-searching — I’ve been donating cash instead of goods. Food banks take cash and buy in bulk or get companies to underwrite the cost, thus stretching those dollars up to tenfold. Those economies of scale make cash donations the best way to support the cause. Find your local food bank here — then check its credibility here or here — and ask what its donation multiplier is. See how far cash can go.

That brings me back to those Girl Scout cookies. (And reminds me to mention that I’ve got another Girl Scouts post coming soon.) Not only are Girl Scout cookies the antithesis of nourishment (among other nasty ingredients: highly processed GMO and planet-damaging oils). But if people instead donated the $3.50 cost of a box directly to a food bank, that money could buy a whole lot of actual food. Seems like a no-brainer.

Still, OK, there is appeal in selecting and donating tangible goods, especially because kids can help. And we’ll probably take part in at least one food drive this holiday season that requires a trip to the store. But there are other options, like donating garden surplus or volunteering to glean at a local farm (find interested food pantries through groups like AmpleHarvest.org or Plant a Row for the Hungry).

For we northeasterners without hoop houses or giant cold frames, those are donation opportunities for the next growing season, not now. But readers in warmer climes might be in luck. And all of us should ask ourselves if we’d want our kids eating the food we place in the donation box. Then choose accordingly.

Thoughts on food donations? Experiences to share? Does it matter what’s in the box?

This post is linked into Real Food Wednesdays and Vegetarian Foodie Fridays.

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