New Brunswick

What to consider before you donate to a food bank

About 850,000 people in Canada rely on food banks. When you donate money instead of cans, non-profits can buy much more food for families in need.

Money often goes further than tins of food

Jane Buckley, executive director of the Oromocto Food Bank, says food banks work on stretching donations of money. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

A loaf of bread for 50 cents or less sounds too good to be true, but that's what Jane Buckley pays when she's buying for the Oromocto Food Bank.

Buckley, the executive director of the food bank, said a dollar in her hand goes much further than a dollar spent by the average shopper.

"If I know what I need in advance — for instance, pasta is a big draw right now — I can call the local grocery stores and let them know I am in need of, let's say, 200 units of pasta.

"And they will go back to their supplier and see what kind of a deal they can get on those 200 units for me, as opposed to going in and buying five at a time at the full regular price."

And often when Buckley calls ahead, there are a few extra boxes when she goes to pick the food up.

Food banks across the country can get deals that regular shoppers can only dream of, because they buy in bulk and build partnerships with stores and suppliers to get items at discounted prices.

Food banks can spend their money more efficiently than the average shopper, meaning they can buy more (and the right kinds) of food when they need it most. 1:58

It's part of the reasoning behind the argument that cash may be a more effective donation than the dozen mismatched cans of beans and tuna collecting dust in your pantry.

As of 2016, about 850,000 Canadians were relying on food banks to survive, a number that Food Banks Canada CEO Chris Hatch said is "stubbornly high."

In New Brunswick, more than 20,680 people rely on the province's 61 food banks.

Hatch said he's seen donation trends flip-flop between cash and cans, but money offers food banks the most flexibility and value.

"They can buy food that they need or to pay the rent or to pay some of their expenses, fuel for their trucks for example," he said.

"I think if push came to shove, they would choose funding over food."

Items donated by the public need to be checked for expiration dates and organized before being distributed. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Buying in bulk with donated money can also be a more efficient way to get food on the tables of families who need it. Food donated by the public needs to be sorted, inventoried and checked for damage and expiration dates, which can take more time.

In Oromocto, Buckley tracks down deals and haggles with suppliers, while volunteers organize the food people bring in.

The Oromocto Food Bank serves 600 to 700 people a month. Children make up 42 per cent of its clients.

Buckley said cash is the most useful donation, but she understands holiday donor fatigue can make people want to donate an actual item rather than money.

"Everybody is looking for the dollar that you have."

While cash donations can be as easy as entering in your credit card information online, some donors prefer the more personal touch of shopping for the food they give.

Food bank campaigns at grocery stores make this easier, providing shoppers with physical reminders to donate as they move around the store.

This year, the Sobeys national food bank campaign is introducing shelf tags to identify the items food banks need most to customers.

Most food bank donations are made between September and December. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Sobeys spokesperson Cynthia Thompson said the chain co-ordinated with provincial food bank organizations to determine what those most needed items are.

This year, Sobeys cashiers are also encouraged to ask customers which amount they would like to donate to food banks — $2, $5 or $10.

Thompson said food banks haven't asked Sobeys to emphasize monetary donations more than food donations.

Both Buckley and Hatch said food bank donations tend to be split close to 50-50 between cash and food items.

"People have their preference," Hatch said. "Some people prefer just to give money and not have to be bothered with buying food and having to put food in a bin. Others would prefer to take the food to a bin than write a cheque, and some like to volunteer their time rather than giving food or money."

Food banks have to sort and inspect each donation from the public. (Angela Bosse/CBC)

Regardless of the distribution, Hatch said, all food banks are grateful for all the support they get, whichever form it takes.

Still, Buckley said food banks, donors and those who need the food get the biggest bang for their buck when they hand over a dollar instead of a can.

"Money is always the easiest thing and the most valuable to us because we can turn that money into so much more than just the general person out shopping can do."

About the Author

Angela Bosse


Angela Bosse is a reporter with CBC New Brunswick. Story tip?