Food Drives and Wasted Resources: A Whole New Can of Worms

Cassie Fritsche, Honorbound. Canned food drives: a staple of the holidays, food pantries, and the giving hearts of patrons everywhere.  Unfortunately, the culinary crusades are not as helpful as they appear, and can even work against charities’ efforts.  Between health regulations, cans being thrown away, inadequate storage, and steep opportunity costs, canned food drives have proven obsolete in the face of better options.  Financial donations serve as a vastly superior means for everyone involved to get more bang for their buck, serving as a model of efficiency: a way to cut corners time-wise without sacrificing quality of work.  The opportunity and financial costs generated by canned donations are more harmful than helpful to the economy; however, as canned food drives are better at incentivizing donation than requests for money are, they are not seen as a wasteful force.

Simply put, cash donations are more efficient than canned donations; according to Katherina Rosqueta, director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy, estimated that “[providers] pay about 10 cents a pound for food that would cost you $2 per pound retail.”[1]  This is due to deals that food pantries have with networks, which allows them to get discounts on products, or buy others in bulk at a cheaper price.  While a common concern of patrons is whether or not their money is going to the right place, there is evidence to discredit this qualm.  There are many charities that create checking accounts with harsh restrictions, ensuring that there is no possibility of funds being misused.[2]  A social media user by the name BashirJulianBashir actually used the average working hours, average cost of a food can, and the minimum wage for their home state to calculate the waste that could be generated simply by handling canned donations instead of financial; according to calculations, canned food drives are about forty times less efficient than cash donations, spending somewhere in the vicinity of $2,000 to accomplish activities that could be done for $50.[3]

Another detriment to the economy (that many fail to consider) is the weighty opportunity costs imposed by the donation of so many cans.  Local food banks are forced to devote time and volunteers to sorting and loading donated items to ensure their quality and security.[4]  Even if the food bank is “run entirely by volunteers… we … have to take into account the opportunity cost of the labor involved”.[5]  Volunteers using their time to inspect thousands of cans aren’t using their time delivering food to people in need.  Food high in sodium or containing an allergen that goes to families with high blood pressure or allergies are wasted entirely.[6]  The Keep or Toss Survey of 2013 even revealed that a whopping 50% of food pantries are likely to toss most of their canned goods.[7]

The trouble with funding lies behind the stigma against donating money; it is a commonly-accepted belief to dislike giving money to those we don’t know, or who aren’t deserving.  It is up to not just the economists and sociologists of our time to solve this conundrum and help to incentivize funding – it’s up to us.  As economic blogger Matthew Yglesias expressed, “Good intentions are lovely, but… it’s more important to make sure your charitable dollars [and thoughts] go as far as possible.”[8]

[1] Yglesias, Matthew. “Can the Cans: Why Food Drives Are a Terrible Idea.” Charities Need Your Money, Not Your Random Old Food. Accessed October 21, 2016.

[2] “A Case For Cash Donations, Instead of Cans – Talk of the Nation.” A Case For Cash Donations: NPR. NPR, 2011. Accessed October 19, 2016.

[3] BashirJulianBashir. “Change My View: Canned Food Drives Are a Colossal Waste of Resources.” Reddit: CMV. Accessed October 19, 2016.

[4] “Food Drives: Where to Donate Food.” Feeding America: Food Drive Donation Guidelines.  Accessed October 19, 2016.

[5] BashirJulianBashir. “Canned Food Drives Are a Colossal Waste of Resources.”

[6] Yglesias, Matthew. “Can the Cans.”

[7] “Keep or Toss Survey for Foods Donated to Food Pantries (2013).” Brown County Government – Wisconsin: Keep or Toss Survey. Accessed October 19, 2016.

[8] Yglesias, Matthew. “Can the Cans.”


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