Food Drive Donations--quality or quantity

Answered on August 19, 2014
Created October 19, 2011 at 6:14 PM

Although most food banks actually have the biggest need during the summer when kids are home from school and not getting free/reduced breakfasts and lunches at school, we are coming up on food drive season (at least here in the U.S.). I've often heard people say you should never give something you wouldn't eat to a food bank and that makes sense...to a point. Obviously dumping a bunch of processed junk food on a food bank would not be a good choice, but how do you balance quality vs. quantity? At what point is a person's food snobbery detrimental to those in need of food? Or is it always wrong to give something you wouldn't personally buy for your own pantry?

Let me give you an example that might clarify what I'm asking: canned tuna. Canned tuna is a paleo food that is frequently requested by food banks. If I buy canned tuna, I go to Whole Foods and get wild caught tuna packed in olive oil or water. It's usually around $3-$4 a can IIRC. So, if I want to make a $20 donation I could get about 5-6 cans. However, if I went to Kroger and got standard cans of Starkist or Chicken of the Sea or even store brand tuna which I don't buy for my own family (although I certainly have in the past), I could get probably get around 15-20 cans with the same amount of money.

I'm inclined to think getting 15-20 cans of regular tuna is the better choice because it's still a nutritious food and more people can be fed with it. But, am I being a hypocrite since that's not the choice I would make for my own family in our current circumstances?

I'm probably way over-thinking this. Maybe I should just give cash...

What do you think? How do you handle food drive donations?


on October 20, 2011
at 08:59 PM

I would avoid anything that's overtly detrimental (wheat, soy, industrial seed oils) and donate whatever I could. Store brand canned tuna is quite nutritious even if it's caught "normally" (I thought all tuna was wild caught?). White rice is good because it's a simple form of pure carbohydrate energy without the antinutrients of the whole grain.



on October 20, 2011
at 06:33 PM

You = awesome. I've worked with several food banks and from my experience more tuna would be better. Mostly because it means a higher ratio of tuna to pasta. If possible, donate diapers. Not a food, I know, but easily the most needed/requested item. I try and donate diapers or baby food as often as we can afford to. Again, thank you so much for existing. People like you make the world a kinder place.



on October 20, 2011
at 02:24 AM

+1 for bargain hunting just to donate to others. I'm going to start doing this.



on October 19, 2011
at 11:13 PM

I don't think you are overthinking. I have struggled with this myself. Even lower quality tuna is better than most other options so that's what I would do. I try to watch for 10 for $10 sales at the store I don't even shop in (Safeway) and will buy a bunch and donate them. I also like to donate steel cut oats and bags of rice so I watch for sales on those as well. I know we don't believe in oats but they are filling and cheap and people like them and again, better than most of the other crappy options out there.



on October 19, 2011
at 06:24 PM

Starving vs eating crap and staying alive....just do what you can for the people and wish them the best!



on October 19, 2011
at 06:19 PM

Overthinking! Give cash, IMO.

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7 Answers



on October 19, 2011
at 10:48 PM

Imagine you're the parent of a kid or two. You're not starving, but having a hard time making ends meet, so you go to a food bank. You get a choice of 4 cans of plain tuna or one can of premium tuna. Which do you choose?

Donate that.


on October 19, 2011
at 06:56 PM

The difference between highest-standard tuna you'd buy for yourself and midline or cheap tuna is kind of moot; you donating 20 cans of either is probably not going to have any practical long term impact on the health of those receiving the food - the impact of conscientious donation is more about filling hungry bellies nutritiously/effectively and without doing significant damage in the same effort. (That said, if you opt for the cheaper tuna, still make an effort to seek water- or olive-oil-soaked if it can be managed.)

Like Kristen, I too used to be a proficient coupon clipper - for over two years, which was suddenly dropped when I went paleo. I was the kind that would pay $30 for $120 worth of groceries in my heyday. Of course, now I know that lots of the things I bought (Hot Pockets anyone?) were about as awful for me health-wise as it got.

Now, my own metric for donation is: Is it gluten free? Is it not industrial oil based? Is it filling and not junk sugar? (Many salad dressings I used to get for pennies were soy- or canola-oil based, with HFCS, so they wouldn't qualify anymore.)

So now, all that said, here's a sample list of nonperishable stuff that would still fall under my donate-able guidelines, in which the umbrella is slightly wider and more lenient than what is typically bought for my own family:

  • White rice, gluten-free rice crackers
  • Peanut butter - the natural kind, though with peanut prices shooting through the roof this may soon be less of an option for donation
  • Puffed rice cereal - the generic kind that is only puffed grains of white rice
  • Corn Chex (gluten free) - I mention this one because there are usually lots of Chex coupons out, so Chex can be sometimes had for free or nearly free
  • Olive oil - sometimes there are coupons for this. Just make sure that's not an olive/canola blend!
  • Muir Glen canned organic tomato products - there are coupons out there all the time for these products, and applied during special double coupon promotions they can often be free or near-free
  • Various and sundry salted nuts, coupons for these are common
  • Tuna, ideally in water or olive oil
  • Salmon (canned)
  • Dried fruits (without sugar when manageable) like raisins, prunes, etc.

Basically, use your best judgment, but don't wallow in self-reflection about it. Getting out there and DOING it (donating conscientiously) is much more helpful than holding back because you can't afford to donate organic grassfed beef jerky and organic grassfed ghee.



on October 20, 2011
at 05:10 PM

In a given 10 year period, 45% of workers move up from one economic quintile to the next. 42% of children born to parent(s) in the bottom quintile stay in that quintile as adults.

This means that for the vast majority of people in the USA a foodbank is a temporary solution and not a lifetime necessity. Anything you give, regardless of the quality, removes the immediate stress of not enough food (survival) and allows that person to concentrate on economic mobility (a place to live, investing in education).

And for those stuck in poverty, you have at least helped them be comfortable.

You can give bleached flour and Crisco with a clear conscience.



on October 20, 2011
at 08:50 AM

Well, I'm too cheap to buy the $4/can tuna for my family even though we probably could sometimes if I really wanted to. Cheap canned tuna is pretty darned nutritious and good enough for us, so I hope it would be good enough for the food bank. I'd prefer 3-4 cans of the cheap stuff to 1 premium can if I was trying to feed my hungry family.

Wild canned salmon, even better, fewer additives, and less expensive per pound if you buy the big can.

If you want to get the most bang for your tuna buying buck, hit restaurant supply stores like Cash N Carry.

And lastly, I try to remember "sometimes the wrong food is better than no food". Our bodies are pretty clever and can extract nutrients from many sources, even imperfect ones. While it is easy to get caught up in being diet perfectionists, there is a reason agriculture took hold long ago, food insecurity sucks, and having a stocked pantry goes a long ways towards reducing stress.



on October 19, 2011
at 07:49 PM

Good question and one I've wondered about myself. In a similar vein is the process of feeding the hungry abroad (e.g. Haiti). Often, the "meals" delivered to such places, where food can be very scare and people are starving, consist of plant based protein, very little fat and substantial carbohydrate. The "meals" are shelf stable and mixed with local food/broth once delivered. Is it "wrong" to support such an initiative? I've decided that some nutrtition is better than none, and the people being fed the delivered meals are markedly healthier than they were before having the food. This is a good thing.

Many of us are fortunate to be able to eat the Whole Foods tuna instead of the supermarket variety that we may not view as nutritious. However, if we are able to help provide for others, I would say quantity over quality prevails until such a person is able to provide for him or her self and make the choice to eat more nutritious food.


on October 19, 2011
at 06:26 PM

Canned tuna -- no matter what type -- is still better than the sugery cereals in my opinion! I just made a massive donation, but of mostly health and beauty stuff. I'm a couponer so I have a stockpile of what I call "crap" haha. I did give my last bit of pastas though. I got sooo much for free, a few months before going Paleo. I'm just glad I could give away all this stuff to others to use!

If the people receiving the items will use it, I say it's a good thing.



on January 14, 2012
at 05:55 PM

If you want to influence what people eat, don't give cash. They'll just buy stuff like canned vegetables. The most popular items are boxed cereal, tuna and other canned meats, peanut and other nut butters, oil and ground or instant coffee. I would go with tuna, almond butter, coconut flakes, nuts, coconut oil and coffee. If your food pantry has a fridge, give them real butter.

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