A Case For Cash Donations, Instead Of Cans

Every November, food donation boxes in offices, stores and schools fill with shelf-stable food. But as much as half of it may never be used, says Katherina Rosqueta of the University of Pennsylvania's Center For High Impact Philanthropy. She says it's time to can food drives and donate cash instead.

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NEAL CONAN, HOST:

Over the past few weeks, donation boxes in offices, stores and schools have been filling up with cans of vegetables and boxes of mac and cheese, food that often comes from people's cupboards and is intended to help the poor celebrate Thanksgiving. Katherina Rosqueta of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for High Impact Philanthropy argues that as much as half of that food may never be used and that millions go hungry. In an op-ed for the Albany Times Union, she says it's time to can food drives.

If you donate, would you be willing to provide a check instead? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Katherina Rosqueta joins us from a studio at the Wharton Business School at the University of Pennsylvania, where she's executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy. And good of you to be with us today.

KATHERINA ROSQUETA: Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you say for the same amount of money spent on buying cans for a food drive, donors can feed 20 times more families by providing cash as opposed to cans.

ROSQUETA: That's absolutely right. One of the things that we have available to us now in the United States, is actually a surplus of food. That surplus, when it gets donated to food banks, can then be made available to local pantries and soup kitchens around the country. And because these are either donated food or food that is purchased by the network of food banks at wholesale prices, the same $10 that you would spend to, say, get three cans of food, could actually buy retail value 20 times more food. And that can be the difference between just providing enough for lunch for a couple of people to actually feeding a family of four for a week.

CONAN: And I wonder, you say half the food that is donated in those donation boxes is wasted, is never used?

ROSQUETA: I mean, some studies show that up to half of that winds up not being used. But actually the bigger bang for buck, is not from the food that's not being used that goes into food drives. I mean, there are places where some of that food is quite helpful. The bigger bang for buck comes from taking advantage of all of the food that would be wasted, but that could actually go to feed families across the country when regional food banks are able to purchase it from this national network.

CONAN: No, I understand what you're saying about efficiencies and economics of scale. But if somebody gives a can at Thanksgiving and it's not used this Thanksgiving, it's going to be good - perfectly good on Christmas and probably good next Thanksgiving too.

ROSQUETA: Yeah. I think the question is, given the current economic environment and the growing number of families who are unable to feed themselves, how can donors make sure that as many families as possible don't go hungry this Thanksgiving?

CONAN: I understand the argument, as well. But there is something about the spirit of Thanksgiving, which is sharing food. It's a different psychology of here's a can of food as opposed to here's a check.

ROSQUETA: Yeah. And I think that's something that too often people think the difference is between personal engagement and communities really coming together in the spirit of giving, or a very cold efficient writing of a check. And it doesn't have to be that tradeoff. There are some wonderful examples of communities that provided financial contributions to feed more hungry people in their communities, but, at the same time, used some of the traditions that we think of around food drive to really bring that spirit of giving personally and together for families and communities. It doesn't have to be a tradeoff between the two.

CONAN: Well, such as? Give us an example, if you would.

ROSQUETA: So here's one great story. There was a church where one of their most valued traditions was a time during the offertory where children would come with their donated cans of food and bring it up. And it was quite heartwarming. People would see the youngest people in their community making a difference in addressing hunger.

What they wound up doing, though, instead, is they took the cans of food that they may have used for dinner the night before. And instead of bringing a full can of food, they actually put a check in each of those cans. So you wind up still having that same heartwarming scene, but even better, you wound up actually feeding 20 times more people. And that's - those are some of the really creative ways that people are still honoring their traditions, coming together as a community, and knowing with confidence that they're providing more people food than they ever have before.

CONAN: Katherina Rosqueta is executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. Well, if you donate to the food drive, would you donate as much, if it was a check instead of a box of macaroni and cheese? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Dominic's(ph) on the line from Nashville.

DOMINIC: Hi. My issue with this is mainly that if I'm giving an item of food, I know that administrators, et cetera aren't going to be opening that and using that themselves. If I give money, the more money that comes in, the greater chance for, you know, administrative fees and then eat and pay, and a lot of that gets watered down. And I know a lot of that is not going to get there anyway. So I feel better about giving food knowing that it's probably only going to be used as food for the intended purpose, for the intended people.

CONAN: And there have been, sadly, too many examples of, well, a lot of charities that have very high administrative costs and, indeed, corruption.

DOMINIC: Exactly.

ROSQUETA: Yeah. And that's a concern, I think, not just with nonprofits that provide emergency food but it's a concern that a lot of donors have with any nonprofit. The good news is that with emergency food providers, you actually can deposit funds directly into an account that can only be used for purchasing food. Most of the regional food banks have these kinds of food accounts with the national Feeding America Network. Some of them actually have local restricted funds where you give directly into that fund, and it can only be used for purchasing food from the - this national network of food providers that I described.

CONAN: Dominic, if you were aware of such a system, would you feel more confident.

DOMINIC: I suppose. But I don't see how that will be any different from giving food in the first place, although it would make me more comfortable with it.

CONAN: All right. Dominic, thanks very much for the call.

DOMINIC: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we could go next to - this is Jim. Jim, with us from Meridian in Idaho.

JIM: That's right. Neal, we, for years, have given turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas, a couple of them. And I talked to our food bank here in our little town, and they can use the bucks. I'm going to go down to Albertsons. I'm going to check - pardon me for making a name there but I'm going to go down to the store, check out the price of - the average turkey price and calculate that out to two 20-pound turkeys and go down and write them a check for it.

CONAN: And go down and write them a check. So - well, particularly with turkey, something that can spoil, you want to make sure that it's all efficient, yeah.

JIM: Exactly. We've always given canned foods and stuff like that and - but the turkeys, I don't know, just because it was the holidays or something. And we just felt - we were told that the money would go a heck of a lot further.

CONAN: Katherina Rosqueta, is he right in a foodstuff like turkey?

ROSQUETA: Absolutely. And it's not just perishable items. Because the - we're talking about a national source of surplus food for this country even for the perishable, excuse me, the nonperishable item. Food banks can acquire the same amount of food for much less money than you or I could if we just went to our local supermarket.

CONAN: Jim, thanks very much and happy Thanksgiving.

JIM: You bet. Go Broncos.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: OK. Let's see if we could go next to - this is Doug. And Doug's on the line from Grand Rapids in Ohio.

DOUG: Yes. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

DOUG: Two points I'll try to make quickly. Number one, I'm a coupon clipper. So oftentimes, I'm able to get things for a very reduced price or sometimes almost nothing. And number two, you know, I have transportation and access to supermarkets where they have, you know, some really good sale sometimes and you can get a lot for your buck. And again, I think some of these people that I'm trying to help out maybe don't have access to supermarkets like I do, so I like to think my donation has a lot of bang for the buck because I'm willing to take the time to clip the coupons and go to where the sales are, you know, when I'm doing my shopping for myself.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, given those kinds of discounts, Katherina Rosqueta, is he getting bang for his buck?

ROSQUETA: I mean, he's certainly getting more bang for his buck just describing the kinds of practices he's doing. And he is thinking about how can I get the most food for hungry people given the money I'm willing to spend. I mean, the same practice that he's doing on a personal level is what food banks around the county are doing on a national level.

DOUG: I appreciate the discussion. And I guess the main thing is people are willing to help, and that's a good thing, especially this time of year.

ROSQUETA: Absolutely.

CONAN: That's a good thing, Doug. Thank you.

DOUG: OK. You're welcome.

CONAN: Some people, no matter what, are going to donate food in a can or boxes anyway. Are there more efficient ways to use those donations?

ROSQUETA: Well, the best food banks have pretty strong logistic systems that help them manage both the donated food as well as the food that they purchase through the network of food banks. So if you are going to donate food, you shouldn't feel like that's going to waste. That will help backfill some food that they may not be able to purchase in time but folks still can use.

CONAN: And if you're going to donate food, should you discriminate and find out what's needed?

ROSQUETA: Absolutely. Again, the best organized food drives and emergency food providers know pretty well the kinds of needs that families in their communities have. And they will actually provide a specific list of the types of food that they know will be most valued or might be the tougher items for them to purchase through the network.

CONAN: Nobody knows better what families need than the families themselves. Do they have choices?

ROSQUETA: Some folks do. And that is really - best practice, when you can do it, is two things. One, sourcing from this national network, and the second is providing a choice option so that families choose what they need and know they can use. I mean, that is part of what reduces the waste in the system.

CONAN: A choice option meaning you set it up on shelves like a store.

ROSQUETA: Exactly. Exactly. So person comes in, can see the different kinds of food and can choose food that's appropriate to their family. If they have young children, then foods that they know that children can eat. If they already have a couple of things in the cupboards, then they won't bother getting that. And what we found is when you are able to offer that choice option, one, far less food is waste, but, two, you're meeting not just the food needs but also the health needs of families better.

CONAN: Katherina Rosqueta's op-ed appeared in the Albany Times Union yesterday. It was titled "Let's Can the Food Drives." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email that we have from Gary. Food charities, she hasn't said why as much as half the food is wasted. And he says she dodged the question.

ROSQUETA: Let me answer that then more specifically. It's up to half the food is wasted, and it's wasted for a bunch of reasons. Sometimes it has to do with health issues or it's just inappropriate to the family. If you have very young children, they are able to eat different things than older people. You're talking about often very poor families whose health could be compromised, which prevents them from eating certain foods. You have religious and cultural issues where they frankly don't know how to eat the food that's provided. Those are just some of the reasons why food that is donated to people who are vulnerable poor wind up not getting eaten incompletely.

CONAN: Here's a tweet from FitMomsFlag: I understand what the guest is saying, but some of us have no extra cash and can take cans from our own pantry. Isn't that better than nothing?

ROSQUETA: Absolutely. I think that's great.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we get another caller on the line. Let's go to Danielle, Danielle with us from Rochester, New York.

DANIELLE: Yes. Hi. Thanks, Neal. I would like to say I work for a not-for-profit, and I coordinate a food drive every year. We actually just got our drop off a local college collected for us yesterday. And this is - I think this is a great topic because I'm one who was always like, you know, please, if you can make a monetary donation, that would be wonderful. As our donation, the food received last - yesterday what - included a box of sauerkraut for Thanksgiving. We don't know what to do with that sauerkraut frankly.

CONAN: I was going to say I've never had sauerkraut at Thanksgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE: Yeah. Yeah. Not necessarily your typical Thanksgiving fare. So that's an example where we're not - where we might - not necessarily wasted but that's not what we were looking for, for Thanksgiving. If someone had provided us a check rather than a box of sauerkraut, we could've absolutely purchased another turkey for our families.

CONAN: I can understand that. It'll come in handy in the Reuben sandwich festival.

DANIELLE: That's true, I guess.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSQUETA: A new tradition.

DANIELLE: Maybe we can have Reuben later on. And then hopefully to direct your previous caller's concern about administration fees, and I would just like to let people know that administration fees aren't always going in the pockets of the big wigs like you would normally think. The not-for-profit I work at, part of the administration fee, which usually a not-for-profit has a 10 to 8 percent administration fees, a very small percentage. That pays for the heat for the building that we sort the food in. So we need that administration fee to keep the lights on where we work.

So don't let the administration fee deter you because, oftentimes, that's going to help provide the support for the logistics to enable that organization to give to the community. So that's all I had to say.

CONAN: Danielle, thanks very much. Happy Thanksgiving, and enjoy the sauerkraut.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

DANIELLE: Thanks to you, too.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we go next to - this is Nancy, Nancy with us from Berkeley.

NANCY: Hi. I just wanted to say that we do both. We contribute money and do food. And I think it's very important to do food for two reasons. First, there are families that cannot afford to give a check, but they can always give a couple cans of food, and it makes them feel good and it's a contribution. And also, it's very important for children because they can understand giving food. You know, they can't understand checks. And it, you know, it really is good the children, you know, can begin to see how important it is to give to others. And so I'm definitely in favor of giving food as well as a check.

CONAN: As well as a check. Nancy, thanks very much. Here's an email we have from Robin in Elkhart, Indiana. I always give food and good food. The local food bank in my hometown ensures that clients receive well-balanced food and not just boxed white carbs. And I guess it's important, Katherina Rosqueta, to say they do it well in some places.

ROSQUETA: Yes. Yes. I mean, there is, as I mentioned earlier, just a growing need around the country for people who don't have enough food. When somebody wants to help and all they can provide is food, donated food, that's great. The best providers of emergency food know how to work with both donated food as well as all the food - the 20 times more food that the same amount of money can purchase through their food network, food bank network, and can put that all together into food that really will provide not just a means to end the hunger of the family but, as I said earlier, a way to make sure that it's nutritious as well and meeting the health needs of that family.

CONAN: We'll end with this email from Barbara in Oakland. So glad this is on. I've shifted to sending a check early on in November. I'm glad to know it will buy more than I could. Our local Boy Scout troop also stopped collecting cans and dry food and has gone on to pledge cash and collect around the neighborhood. So anyway, Katherina Rosqueta, thank you very much for your time today.

ROSQUETA: Thanks so much for having me.

CONAN: She joined us from a studio at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, where she's executive director for the High Impact Philanthropy. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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