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At food banks, digital donations go farther

Frank Smith moves a box full of donated yams at the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore.

At the Maryland Food Bank in Baltimore, workers driving forklifts move boxes of mashed potatoes and stuffing and canned soup, a lot of it donated through food drives sponsored by local groups or businesses.

The holidays are prime season for canned food drives. You’ve probably seen donation barrels around the office, or at the grocery store. And with the recent reduction in food stamp benefits that took effect this month, charities say they’re seeing more demand for donated food.

But the traditional food drive is losing favor at some food banks.

“What we’ve found is that it’s the most expensive way to get food on the table of a food insecure person,” says Deborah Flateman, president of the Maryland Food Bank.

There’s the cost of sending a driver and truck to pick up the donation. Then volunteers and paid staff have to inspect the food for safety, and then they sort and box it for distribution. Those costs add up to more than $1.50 per pound of donated food, according to the food bank.

So more food banks are steering donors to virtual food drives. On the Maryland Food Bank website, you can shop online, adding cases of green beans and kale to a digital shopping cart -- at much lower prices than you’d pay at a retail supermarket.

“We just simply purchase that case of food and it goes right into inventory,” says Flateman.

The food bank’s processing costs are about two-thirds lower, she says.

At the San Francisco and Marin Food Bank, community engagement manager Emily Byram says donors are encouraged to give cash. For every dollar donated, she says, the group can distribute $6 worth of food. But there’s still a place for the traditional food drive.

“It’s also really important to have our barrels out in the community and for people see them and to help people understand and raise awareness that the food bank exists,” she says.

Without that reminder, some people just wouldn’t think to give, says Teresa Newton, from Portland, Ore.

“If it’s in your face every single day as you come in and out of the office, I think you're more likely to say, 'Oh yeah, I'll remember to bring that bag of food that I didn’t want,'" she says. "You know, a bunch of chicken noodle soup cans -- you might remember to bring them."

And that may be why the virtual food drive has been slow to catch on. At the Maryland Food Bank, traditional drives bring in almost a million pounds of donated food every year. So far online donations are just a fraction of that.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.

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