Start the day smarter ☀️ How often do women giving birth at individual hospitals experience heart attacks, seizures, kidney failure, blood transfusions or other potentially deadly problems? Notable deaths in 2023 Human trafficking laws
Food banks

Want to help beyond Giving Tuesday? Here's why cash is king for charities around US

James Powel

The headquarters of the Westside Food Bank in Santa Monica, Calif. hums ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday.

Cans of green beans are being picked from pallets, workers wrap and label deliveries to food pantries, outside a pickup from a pantry fills 21st Court between the food bank and the businesses around it.

As the country turns towards the holiday season, the rising need of the food insecure is putting pressure on the nations' food banks who are asking the country to help them do their work and they need cash.

More than 44 million people lived in households that were food insecure in 2022, according to an October report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was up from 33.8 million people in 2021.

"When you provide people with food, you're providing them with hope. You're providing them with opportunity," Genevieve Riutort, CEO of the Westside Food Bank said. "Food assistance really can have a multiplier effect in the community."

Giving Tuesday cash could help food banks be more efficient

As charities across the nation attempt to repeat the 3.1 billion dollars raised on Giving Tuesday in 2022, the rise in food insecurity brings the need to keep food bank operations going into focus.

More than 3 million households with children were food insecure at some point in 2022, according to the USDA report.

By donating cash in lieu of canned goods, donors are able to:

  • Provide the ability for food banks to offer employment (such as the full time food sourcing position Riutort would like to hire for)
  • Allow food banks to purchase food at wholesale prices when needed
  • Provide capital for expansion or upgrades
  • Pay for operational costs that allow food banks to retrieve large scale donations

“Without the dollar, I don't have the warehouse to store the food or to have a place for the volunteers to work for my staff to work,” Riutort said. “It's also important to recognize that, you know, nonprofits just like any other business, have expenses, and they have to keep the lights on, they have to pay salaries, they have to pay for insurance, they have to pay for all those things that any other business would have to pay for.”

The Westside Food Bank distributes 5 million pounds of food to pantries in a year but the logistical limits hold back what she sees as the potential good the organization can create.

"I could literally get probably another 2 million pounds of donated produce, if I had the cooler space to store it, and accept it and receive it," Riutort said.

The Westside Food Bank currently leases a second warehouse in West Los Angeles and is seeking the capital to purchase it outright. While philanthropic donations are useful to organizations of any size, Riutort argues that donations to organizations that are closer to the people they serve makes donations go further.

“If I had three $10 million donors, those three people would be ensuring the food security of the next generation of Angelenos, the next several generations of Angelenos,” Riutort said. “Why are we spending money on rent when we could own a building and secure our future?”

How bad is food waste in the US?New study reveals problem and what you can do.

Scale multiplies value of donations

When a food bank is able to tap into larger economies of scale, the importance of operational funding increases.

The Los Angeles Regional Food Bank distributed $196 million worth of donated food to pantries across the southland last year. While the organization did purchase $12 million worth of food, the majority of cash donations to the food bank goes to acquiring and processing the donated goods.

“The funding that is coming in, it's largely underwriting our operating costs to be able to handle all of (the donated food).” Michael Flood, President and CEO of the food bank said. “When we purchase food, it gets delivered to our door. That's part of purchasing food. On the donated side, when a donor calls, we go pick it up. I mean, they may deliver, but most donors (say), ‘hey, I've got a truckload of food, when can you be here.’”

It is, in a sense, an extension of how the LA Regional Food Bank operated when it was first founded by Tony Collier as an extension of the Grandview Foundation where he would pick up donations in his own truck and redistribute them to charities that could use them.

Leveraging dollars key to help food insecure

When Flood and Riutort talk about how food banks utilize cash donations, both come back to the idea of leveraging the donated dollar.

For the LA Regional Food Bank, the organization's size allows the leveraging to go towards operational costs.

"It isn't just distributing, we have to go out and get the food, we handle it, we get it out and so forth and that really is where the leveraging comes into play," Flood said. "Fuel in the tank, utility bills, the operating costs, labor."

On the westside, the donated dollar goes toward filling in the nutrition gaps left over from the donations. The Westside Food Bank spends about half of its budget on food purchases but capital improvements would allow that number to drop.

"I could get another two to three million pounds of donated fresh produce and the only thing standing between me being able to get that and where we are now is cooler space," Riutort said.

For the over 44 million people living in food insecure households, their access to food hinges on the ability of food banks to do their work.

"These numbers are more than statistics. They paint a picture of just how many Americans faced the heartbreaking challenge last year of struggling to meet a basic need for themselves and their children," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said in a statement to NPR.

Featured Weekly Ad