A Critique of Canned Food Drives

Submitted by Wendy Wagner.

This year is the Governor’s First Annual Holiday Hoops Classic.  In addition to a basketball tournament, the four participating Virginia Universities (Mason, Univ of Virginia, Old Dominion U. and the Univ of Richmond) will be competing to collect the most donations of non-perishable food.  Capital Area Food Bank, an excellent organization in our region, will be our recipient.

I’ll come clean.  I wrote a provocative title to get you to look. Oldest trick in the book.  You’re thinking, “Seriously Wendy? You’re going to critique a canned food drive?”

Yes.  Yes, I am. Something we strive to do in the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement (CLCE) is challenge students to apply the values of higher education (critical thinking, problem solving, communication, civil discourse, awareness of social problems) to their civic roles.  Just because an effort has good intentions doesn’t mean it is above critical evaluation of impact and effectiveness.

Given the efforts to support the victims of Hurricane Sandy and the spirit of giving that comes with the holidays, the time is ripe for a discussion that gets us all to think a bit more critically about what we’re doing.

This small issue is also a good illustration of a larger one: that community engagement isn’t simple.  We have to have more than just good intentions.  CLCE’s interest is in deepening the discussion as a campus about how we support the community we are a part of.

In this case, at CLCE we would suggest an alternate route:  give money instead of cans.  Do you know what a foodbank can do with money that it can’t do with cans?  Whatever it needs to.  They can buy fresh produce, milk, bread, eggs and other healthy options.  They can provide food that is healthier and a closer fit to their clients’ tastes and cultural preferences.

It’s also important to be aware that food banks often have arrangements with the food industry to have access to surplus food for pennies on the dollar.  In some cases it is a simple buying in bulk issue.  According to one report, they can acquire your two dollar can of food for about ten cents.

So here’s the good news.  CLCE is fully behind the Governor’s Holiday Hoops Classic Food Drive because…  money counts too.  Any funds you donate via THIS WEBSITE  apply toward Mason’s “count” in our contest against the University of Richmond.

Additionally, the CLCE staff is collecting cash for Holiday Hoops in the Johnson Center on December 5th and 12th (Wednesdays).  Four shots in the basket gets you a free t-shirt.

Some may feel this makes the decision of dollars vs cans a “six of one, half-dozen of the other” issue.  We can now give whatever is more convenient to us.  That’s really thinking about it from the giver’s perspective.  We hope the Mason community thinks a little harder and considers the receiver’s point of view when we engage in the community.

Is Mason going to win the Holiday Hoops Classic Food Drive showdown against the U of Richmond?  Of course we are, we’re awesome.  But our donation of money as well as food is going to benefit the Capital Area Food Bank in a much more robust way – and THAT is what really “counts.”

The Holiday Hoops Classic basketball tournament is Dec 22nd (go Patriots!) at the University of Richmond.   Money and cans are being collected from Nov 15 to Dec 15th. 


5 Responses to “A Critique of Canned Food Drives”

  1.   llawson Says:

    I’m so glad you brought this up Professor Wagner! I think that a lot of time people (myself included) look at something like a canned food drive and don’t think outside of the box to help the same situation. The CLCE solution, which breaks the traditional concept of providing food for communities, is a great example of how you can make the largest impact. Even donating the two dollars we would pay for a can so they can purchase TWENTY greatly increases what you are able to do. I think another important point that I realized during the service trip to the Capital Area Food Bank is that a lot of people don’t think about human resources when donating either. I never knew they had so much food sitting in a warehouse waiting to be sorted. This is just another example of how hard it is to look past such efforts and really evaluate how you can best help!

  2.   Wendy Wagner Says:

    Thanks Lori – I’m so glad you brought up the LLC experience at the food bank last weekend. You’re right, all the staff it takes (and rental space!) to sort through all those donations is significant. Sometimes we think we’re helping but we’re just creating more work. (I’ve seen this happen with volunteering as well as donations). Great point!

  3.   Amanda Andere Says:

    Thank you for starting this important dialogue. I would take it a step further and hope we are asking the question, why are people hungry or homeless? What can we do to raise awareness and resources to end the situation that would cause a family to need a food pantry? Also hunger and poverty does not know holidays. Which I address here http://www.huffingtonpost.com/amanda-andere/national-hunger-and-homelessness_b_2124282.html

  4.   Gary Doyle Says:

    So many thoughts went racing through my head as I read this post, I’m not entirely sure where to start. First, as we continue to move toward a cashless society, donating small amounts of money, or even pocket change, is becoming less convenient. I haven’t looked into the numbers but I would think organizations like the Salvation Army aren’t generating the same amount through their kettle ringers as in the past. Having the ability to text a donation would be an easy, immediate opportunity, especially if it is a small amount ($1). The downside to a monetary donation is that it can be be used where ever it’s needed. Unfortunately, we live in a society that is lacking in trust. Too many times we’ve seen donations to nonprofits used for excessive “administrative fees” or just simply taken and not spent to help the intended target. To some people, donating a specific food item guarantees delivery. My final thought is based on a documentary I was watching a while back about our food delivery system. Grocery stores have an enormous amount of food that they are required to discard each day because the expiration dates on the package have passed. Some of this food, if able to be used immediately, is still safe for consumption. Manufacturing uses just-in-time supply to ensure they have the right amount of product as needed to operate a lean production line. We should be able to generate a system using similar methodology to save that food from the landfill and send it out to a network of kitchens that are able to use it immediately. Our grocery costs already reflect the expected waste of products. Why not find a better use for this food?

  5.   Rob Frey Says:


    I completely agree with your thoughts regarding this issue. Although canned food drives typically do bring a significant amount of quantity, the quality provided may be at times somewhat dubious;(The Cream of Celery soup from the back of the pantry is not known for it’s restorative value.) Also, drives of this sort have become more about the resultant salve to the person giving rather than an action that has an effect of depth, a sort of bargain to do the right thing.

    The comparable effectiveness of cash is enormous because food isn’t always the only need and it gives the organization the ability to stretch those dollars to address other immediate issues that may be everchanging based on climate, season, current events etc. Sometimes a bar of soap or a pair of dry socks can be just as important as a can of creamed corn.

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