Not so soup-er: The case against donation drives

By Ida Kao.

Every year at my school, the Student Council Association does a food drive, providing Thanksgiving Baskets for families in need. They send out lists to clubs to gather foods like rice, cranberry sauce, boxed stuffing, peanut butter, crackers, and canned soup. Each club assembles and decorates the cardboard boxes before struggling to close the lid, filled to the top with non-perishable goods (The National Art Honor Society chapter tends to have the nicest looking ones, to the surprise of nobody). Just before Thanksgiving Break, there’s an assembly where a slideshow set to music displays Student Council members coordinating the flow of boxes and adding what they brought in. Then, the student body secretary, vice president, and/or president gives a speech about doing this event, and how heartwarming it was to personally deliver the baskets, as they watched mothers and children thank them, faces lit up and eyes filled with tears of gratitude.

For the 2016-17 school year, the Student Council Association at my high school donated 500 Thanksgiving baskets to those in need. In the past, they’ve also sponsored drives to donate razors, shaving cream, and other personal hygiene products. The local animal shelter has a list of items to donate, ranging from paper towels to gently used leashes.

All are lovely acts of charity, right?

No, not really. Yes, people need to eat, and the holidays mean that kids who rely on school lunch due to food insecurity go hungry. But what if they can’t eat the food they get? Food allergies have been on the rise, from 3.4% in 1997–1999 to 5.1% in 2009–2011, according to a report by the Center for Disease Control. That’s over a 50% increase. That means there’s a good chance that jar of peanut butter gets thrown in the trash. Celiac disease is genetic, so an entire family may be unable to eat saltine crackers that had been graciously donated by a generous parent. Sensitive skin or other conditions could render deodorant or other non-edible products useless, and an influx of collars for small dogs might mean large dogs will go without one at a cash-strapped shelter.

Nor should they use most of what they’ve been given, in some cases. Think of what constitutes a healthy meal. It might include fresh fruits and vegetables, bread or other carbs, lean meats, and fresh fish. Salad, chicken breasts, and mashed potatoes would work. Pot roast and bread plus green beans and carrot sticks with ranch would work as well. But guess what foods expire too quickly? And what can’t be included because it’ll spoil and risk contamination? Opened personal hygiene products must be thrown out, along with those that may be expired. Old leashes can be too worn out for use.

The worst part about edible donations is their prepackaged counterparts aren’t very close to the real deal. Mushy peas are unappetizing as it is; a can of Del Monte’s Sweet Peas has 380 milligrams of sodium in the standard ½ cup serving size or 16% of the recommended daily intake. Campbell’s Chunky Savory Vegetable Soup has 770 milligrams, with 32% of the recommended daily intake of sodium. Bob Evans Original Mashed Potatoes have 410 milligrams of sodium. One can of soup is not enough for a meal. Imagine eating high-sodium, low nutrition foods 3 times a day. Ask yourself if that’s what you want to eat every day for a week, a month, a year.

Disgusting, isn’t it?

Yet, families are taking these off supermarket shelves and putting them into donation boxes, patting themselves on the back for the good they have done. Perhaps more importantly, schools and organizations are encouraging this instead of searching for alternative means.

What alternative means? For one, they could just ask for money. Sure, it seems colder and less personal, and mismanagement of funds given in goodwill is a real problem. But The Salvation Army does it, and they continue to do so with success, despite their status as a Christian Church and poor track record with the LGBT community.

The best part? You don’t need to donate as much. Buying in bulk is cheaper for food banks, and since they’re non-profits, they can strike an even better deal with suppliers. The two dollars you spent on a can of tuna could instead buy an entire fish.

“But wait! Just like you said, isn’t it impersonal? Shouldn’t we let kids know the importance of goodwill and charity?”

That’s the inevitable reaction; the proclamation that canvassing for donations isn’t just to give people food or dogs and cats a healthy environment to live. So what if it costs a little more? We’re teaching the next generation about altruism and how good it feels to give back to society!

But we mustn’t forget that cans are heavy, and kids are forgetful. Some do carry wallets with them, however. Families walking by a grocery store don’t need to search through a cart when Mom or Dad can just reach into a purse or pocket. Loose change adds up quickly in donation jars, and cold hard cash is easier to hold in the hand for the little ones. The same valuable lesson can be taught alongside a practical, economic one; anyone can make a difference in their community with a small sacrifice, and it doesn’t need to come at the expense of someone’s health, money, and bulk.


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