Minn. food shelves prefer cash to cans

Bob Hass
Bob Hass checks expiration dates on donated food at the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park on Dec. 12, 2011. A crew of volunteers spent three days sorting 10,000 pounds of food. They examined seals and dents to prevent distributing unsafe food.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

Minnesota's 319 food shelves will take your food donations this holiday season, but this year they really want your cash.

It's an important time of the year for the state's food shelves, which bring in a large percentage of their resources at the end of the year. But food shelves hope donors know that a cash donation might help the hungry more than the cans of soup in the back of their cupboard.

Michelle Rageth, director of the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park, said they are grateful for any support but started asking for cash a few years ago.

"We end up throwing away about a third to half of the product that comes in because it's outdated or it's so dented or damaged or opened or half eaten," she said.

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That's right: half-eaten. It's usually a half-eaten jar of peanut butter. "And one we found a couple of weeks ago even had a spoon inside of it," Rageth said.

Rageth said everyone means well, but added that some people just clean out their cupboards for a food drive. The worst food comes when a parent dies, and the kids clean out the house. Since the economic downturn, she's noticed more expired cans coming in.

Discarded donations
Items discarded at the Friends in Need Food Shelf in St. Paul Park. Volunteers spend days sorting donated food, following advice from manufacturers and food safety experts to assure that distributed food is safe. Food shelf director Michelle Rageth says the quality of donated food has fallen since the economic downturn began, and the food shelf is seeing more expired items.
MPR Photo/Julie Siple

One day recently, volunteers at the food shelf were throwing out food rather than handing it out.

This group of retirees sorted through gigantic piles. They dumped out every bag and peered through a magnifying glass at expiration dates.

They found Jell-O a decade old, mustard greens six years past their date. All of it donated by community members.

When people donate cash instead of cans, Rageth said she can go to a food bank and buy usable food, in the quantity she needs. Most importantly, she can buy more food with a dollar than a donor could get at the grocery store. That's the message she's trying to get across.

"We love to show them what we can do with money," she said. "We're able to get so much more, it's just unbelievable."

It's hard to say how much more she can get. Last week, she bought a 40-pound box of meat for $4.80. But the savings varies with food prices, donations and availability.

Not all food shelf directors are asking for cash. It's a risk -- nobody wants to seem ungrateful for what comes in. But people do seem to be getting the message.

Sue Kainz runs an annual statewide food drive. In the 1980s, the drive primarily brought in food. This year, people donated almost twice as much cash as pounds of food. That's not to say everyone wants to write a check.

"There is that group of people though who really want to just make sure that for the food shelf, we are going to just donate food," Kainz said. "Because then they know that the food is there, and it goes to a person."

That makes sense, according to University of Oregon psychologist Paul Slovic, president of Decision Research.Slovic studies how we make decisions. Research shows that donors want to be able to imagine the person they are helping, he said.

In one experiment, psychologists showed subjects a picture of a starving child, and asked them to help. They showed a second group the same picture, but removed that picture from the computer screen before asking for a donation. The second group gave less.

"So that shows the ability to see or imagine the face of someone in need can make a difference," Slovic said.

And -- Slovic is speculating here -- if you give food, you can imagine that food landing on one person's table. You can see it in your mind. That creates an emotional reaction.

" Money is more abstract," Slovic said. "You don't get the same image, or the same feeling, with money."

Food shelves like Friends in Need are finding other ways to create that connection. They're offering tours of the food shelf. They're suggesting people donate toiletries if they want to give something concrete. And they'd never turn away food.

In fact, hunger relief groups don't want a world in which nobody ever gives food, said Colleen Moriarty, director of the advocacy group Hunger Solutions. She wants more cash and fewer cans, but she still sees a role for traditional food drives.

"I think the character-building experience, you know for young children, collecting food or giving up a food that they really like to someone else, the identification with the local food shelf in your community and the feeling that you're helping out," Moriarty said. "I think all of those things are still really important."

Just bring food you would want to eat, she said.