November 21, 2011

Canning the Cans in Food Drives

Jennifer Hartle

Jennifer Hartle

Guest Blogger

Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Stanford University

Each day, as I drop my daughter off at her pre-school, I am horrified to see the canned food drive bin in the threshold.

It is not that the bin itself is scary to me—although it is dressed up as a six-foot tall Thanksgiving turkey that says, “Feed me.” It is not all of the sodium and industrial ag products packed tightly in the can that’s upsetting me. What concerns me most, as a doctoral student researching environmental contaminants in the food system, is all of the BPA that has leached from those epoxy resin can linings into the food.  I read report after report confirming that, although we have a dearth of human epidemiological evidence on the health effects of BPA, we certainly have animal data that find BPA to be linked to many adverse health effects including endocrine disruption and carcinogenesis.

I fully embrace the spirit that we are trying to instill in our children that those who are fortunate enough to have food on our table everyday should give to those in need. What I wrestle with in this situation, though is, Is it okay that we are feeding food-insecure people with consumables that we would not put on our own tables? Many would ask (or argue):  If the alternative to eating canned food is no food at all, then how dare I advocate the reduction in canned food to feed the hungry? Well, I don’t think that the issue is canned food or no food. Food insecurity is a much more complex topic than that.

One idea I have comes from what I remember from one of my field trips to the Maryland Food Bank during my Baltimore Food Systems class. (Thank you, Roni and Anne!) What one of the employees at the Maryland Food Bank told us was that it was much more helpful (in terms of both resources and cost-effectiveness) for them to receive funds to purchase food for those in need. We are talking cash donations here. All of the individual food drives, although very thoughtful, were very hard to deal with for their larger food distribution center. There are issues of receiving the types and quantities of food that they need, and how to distribute goods fairly when you have, for example, two donated cheesecakes.  So whip out those checkbooks. Not as fun as feeding a six-foot tall turkey, but maybe less intimidating.

This story was inspired by a newly released Breast Cancer Fund article entitled, “Report: BPA in Thanksgiving Food.”

The suggestion to make cash donations instead of in-kind donations stirs up debate, naturally. Some of the questions that arise about how to implement a policy that recommended the reduction in BPA-laden canned food in the food bank system. Could the gap be filled with fresh, local foods? What about cost? Refrigeration? I welcome your comments and solutions to these questions.



    I agree that it would be nice if all cans were BPA free. But until then, I will donate a lot and I will do it often, whether it be food, cans, or money. When you are literally starving, one can of donated food will make all the difference. This is from someone at the Pine Ridge Reservation who works at a food bank: “A diabetic elder mentioned that her electricity had been turned off for 3 or 4 days and the food she had in the refrigerator spoiled. She had nothing in the house to eat except a can of beans (that) she was heating for her noon meal. At some point earlier she had overexerted herself and could feel that her blood sugar was off. She had some sugar, and placing a bit to melt in her mouth, got some relief. She would have no more food available to her, except for the Senior food (delivery) brought to her once a day when they made it.”

    To donate canned food is a moral imperative, BPA or not.

    I work with One Spirit Food Programs on the Pine Ridge Rez, and they need whatever they can get.

  2. Christine Grillo

    Posted by Christine Grillo

    I’m intrigued by Jennifer’s comment that cash donations (instead of donations in kind) might be better for everyone. I’d love to know what underlies our cultural preference for giving cans over cash. It certainly would be easier for us to donate money, and it might be more helpful and empowering for the recipients – so why do we insist on giving cans? Is it mistrust of the people who administer the funds? Is it a need to connect more deeply with the gift? But those questions aside, I agree that donations of any sort are still very much needed.

  3. People have been trained for years to donate non-perishable food items, and that usually means cans and boxes. But I’m seeing an increasing number of donation guidelines that have to remind people not to give canned goods that are near, at or past their expiration date, which defeats the purpose of donating a non-perishable. Many banks actually receive the bulk of their canned goods not from individuals but from manufacturers and retailers passing on their excess inventory. In short, the local food drive is probably more important for drawing attention to food insecurity than it is for actual donations.

    The upside of cash donations is that banks and pantries can use those toward the purchase of the equipment needed to store and process perishable foods, like produce and dairy, that only a few of them have the resources to handle properly now.

  4. Posted by Jenny Coyle

    I think that, for some reason, people feel like they’re doing “more” when they go to the trouble to bring in canned food. Yet, if you ask them to contribute even just cash equivalent of what they spent on the canned food, it might be $5! So they’d feel weird giving “just” $5, but find it more gratifying to toss in a bunch of cans.

    So there’s that.

    I’ve also seen a place (near downtown Mountain View, CA) that was very happy to get things like boxes of grapefruits, and another (SF food bank) that would very much prefer cash because they buy things by the fork-lift load, in bulk, and then have volunteers bag it individually. The dollar goes much farther that way.

    Thanks, Jennifer, for a thought-provoking blog post. I hope you’ll keep readers of this blog informed about any new developments on the canned food front.

  5. Posted by Courtney

    A local food bank here: The Arkansas Food bank makes community garden space available for some food banks in order to help supplement their food pantries. I think this is a great idea.
    I know in some states food stamp participants can use their food stamp money to buy seeds in order to plant fruits and vegetables.
    I think if people are willing to tend to a garden, more food banks should invest in starting a garden.
    My job recently conducted a food drive and I would have much rather preferred to give money than food. Many times the food banks can provide a meal for $1-3 while $1-3 at the store doesn’t buy much.

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