When I moved to Austin, one of the first things I signed up to do was to volunteer at the Capital Area Food Bank because I wanted to jump into part of Austin’s food system which makes sure that food insecure families and children get to eat.
While I was there I spent 3 hours sorting cans into various bins that would then be repacked into 25lb boxes which get sold to partner agencies to distribute to those in need. (Food Banks sell the food you donate at grocery stores, churches, etc. to food pantries, soup kitchens, and other agencies…this is NOT a bad thing. It is typically sold at $.05/lb or less to agencies and this fee goes to operational costs of the food bank. That means more food to more people, with less overhead costs.)
So, these cans come from a variety of places, Randalls and HEB sell bags that have been prepackaged with a certain dollar amount of food, HEB sells slips with dollar amounts which then are translated into canned goods which get sent to the food bank. Places that do food drives will collect cans and send them to the food bank. Food comes from all over the place, and someone has to sort it into appropriate amounts and check to make sure the food isn’t past dates or bad or otherwise non-sellable.
This is a BIG problem, in the two food banks I’ve volunteered at…people are really willing to give away that can of condensed french onion soup that expired in 2007 thinking “well, hungry people would rather eat this than die” and then they feel good about themselves for being so generous. Only, there’s a big problem when that happens….it literally goes from their pantry, to the can sorting people, who READ THE DATE, and then from there straight into a landfill. So, falsely generous feels good about themselves person just felt good about making someone else throw away their trash. At the Capital Area Food Bank, food items (with the exception of baby food) are allowed to be out of date by various amounts of time (cereals, 12 months….tomatoes, 18 months, canned vegetables, 3 years….etc) and these items are still incredibly edible….just don’t donate something that expired in the Bush presidency or earlier!
Anyway, so I was sorting canned proteins (think chili, beans, tuna) into their holding container and started pulling out can after can of vienna sausages. Also in my box to sort was some coffee creamer that didn’t have a lid and a bag of spaghetti that had to be taped up because someone had used part of it.
And I almost had to leave the room because I was on the verge of tears.
When I was in Urban Servant Corps in Denver for my internship in Seminary, we were able to purchase food from the food bank (which significantly helped us stretch our meager grocery budget) and we regularly purchased things like the 25lb boxes of vegetables, or 25lb boxes of beverages, or 25lb boxes of canned meat. Basically, any time we could buy a box of assorted things we did it, because you often got some variety as opposed to just a case of canned peas.
And when we opened these boxes (now, this part would generally be done by the staff of the local food pantry) it was pretty dehumanizing to get people’s rejects. Opening up a box of grains to see that we got 3 boxes of taco shells with the box tops for education cut off (as if poor people don’t care about supporting their schools), boxes of costco spaghetti with 2 of 6 bags missing and the box taped back shut, and the like made us feel like we weren’t even worthy of having real food, but that we were just worthy of having people’s rejected items. And we weren’t really experiencing poverty…we were experiencing faux poverty.
I can’t imagine what a person who is already dehumanized enough by society for being unable to feed themselves regularly must deal with…that they are already in a bad place and have to deal with eating people’s rejects.
So, for the love of God and the love of people, don’t donate vienna sausages to food banks….unless you really love them yourself. Don’t donate K-cups of coffee that you took one out of the package and didn’t like so you closed the box back up and dropped it in a donation bin (chances are, the recipients won’t have a keurig anyway, so this is not a helpful item to donate…unless they are crafty like we were. We got a K-Cup pack once and opened every cup, dumped out the grounds into our coffee can, and used them that way. Again, because we had the time, energy, and thought to do so…luxuries not every hungry person has).
Really, truly, the best way to feed hungry people is by giving money to your local food pantry, or donating money to the food bank itself. But donating money is not as glamorous as donating items, so if you want to go that route (and keep me volunteering!) please donate things you’d actually eat. I call it food with dignity. People deserve to eat like humans, even if their food is given to them by food pantries. Because with the rising income inequality in this country, you might not always be on the giving end of the food system in our country.