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Listener Essay - Cash Or Cans?

Rows of canned food goods

  Kathryn Allen is a writer who lives in Menands. She is vice-chair of the Unity House board.

Cash or Cans?

In the ramp up to the holiday season, community groups are organizing food drives to provide much needed help to local food pantries. At my gym - Plaza Fitness - the trainers have each put out a huge box for donations. They’ve launched a contest to see which of their client teams will bring in the most food for the City Mission.

At first I looked askance at this. A recent New York Times piece suggested that giving cash to food pantries is a better way to help hungry families. The argument is that food pantries can buy food in bulk at regional food banks for much less than donors pay at their local supermarkets.

What’s a donor to do? Cans or cash?

I posed this question to Christine Nealon, the service director at Unity House who manages both their food pantry, and their community meals program. Like all donors, I want to get the biggest bang possible for my charitable bucks.

Well, no surprise, the answer is cans AND cash. Both food drives and cash donations are essential to beating back hunger in our communities.

Unity House benefits greatly by food drives, especially when the organizers are specific about what foods are needed and donors respond in kind. The most needed items are peanut butter, tuna fish, cereal, canned beans, pasta, rice, tomato sauce, and any fresh or frozen produce. Personal care items like soap, shampoo, diapers, toothpaste, toothbrushes are also greatly needed. The added benefit of these targeted drives is that the organizers deliver the food and even help to get it on the shelves of the pantry. So contrary to my initial reaction, food drives are a fabulous help in feeding hungry children and families.

Cash is likewise essential. Some people like to say cash is king, and there is no doubt it is also stocks the shelves at our food pantries. There are great deals at our Regional Food Bank, and pantries throughout the Capital Region are able to buy surplus food at big discounts. Two or three times a week Unity House fills a van with food from the food bank, and would be in dire straights without this resource. However, there are challenges. There are limits on how much any food pantry can buy at a time, and the available food doesn’t always meet the needs of the pantry. Fresh fruits and vegetables are always needed but their availability does not always align with our pick up times. Additionally, it takes many hours of staff and volunteer time to get pallets of food into vans, out of vans, and then onto the shelves of the pantry. Unity House’s vans are aging, so that’s an additional concern.

The bottom line? Go ahead and organize a food drive. Feel free to write a check. Cans or cash are both great mitzvahs. Whatever you choose to do in this season of giving, donate generously to your favorite charity.

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