Better ways to help feed the poor

During the season of giving, the most common method of organized charity is probably the food drive. Businesses often set up makeshift boxes in their lobbies that soon overflow with canned goods.

During the season of giving, the most common method of organized charity is probably the food drive. Businesses often set up makeshift boxes in their lobbies that soon overflow with canned goods.

Feeding the hungry is unquestionably a meaningful charitable endeavor, but the customary canned and packaged goods may not be the best way. Healthy options exist, but a large share of nonperishable items are loaded with excess sodium, sugar and other chemicals to maintain flavor and longevity.

And sometimes the food given is unappealing—the unwanted items collecting dust in the back of a family’s kitchen cupboard.

This was actually the subject of an episode of “Adam Ruins Everything,” the new educational sketch comedy show on TruTV, that debunks societal norms.

While the American diet is shifting from the processed, ready-to-go meals of the last half century to a focus on organic and fresh produce, that’s not a reality for the nation’s poorest.

The U.S. government estimates that 23.5 million people live in food deserts where there is no access to fresh, affordable food within one mile. More than 2 million people in low-income rural areas are more than 10 miles from a grocery store. And about one in seven Americans at some point in the year will rely on food pantries or meal services to eat, according to a 2014 survey by Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks.

In America’s food-insecure households, a lack of food isn’t always the issue. The problem is the type of food. It’s known as “hidden hunger,” or more clinically, “micronutrient deficiency,” where people are consuming the requisite amount of daily calories, but not getting essential nutrients.

Patrick O’Neill, 55, an Army veteran in New Jersey, saw traditional food drives as one part of the problem. He estimated that roughly 75 million Americans donate to food drives annually. Though their charity is well-intentioned, their contributions may exacerbate health issues such as diabetes and hypertension prevalent in low-income households, he said.

So in September, O’Neill launched Amp Your Good, a “crowdfeeding” site that operates like a wedding registry where, like an engaged couple chooses kitchen appliances, a local food bank identifies what food items the families it serves need most.

Then a company, school, religious institution or other organization that wants to host a food drive sets it up online rather than through a physical collection box. From there people can scroll through a registry of fresh food items—apples, sweet potatoes, brown rice—to purchase. When the campaign ends, O’Neill’s company organizes purchasing and dropping off the items to the local food bank.

This holiday season, more than 150 organizations nationwide used the site and raised more than 50,000 pounds of real, fresh food.

O’Neill said he’s long been drawn to service-oriented work. Growing up, his parents owned a restaurant where they would invite in poor people from the community for a free meal.

“My mother’s perspective always was, you don’t help them with the leftovers, you help them with what you would eat,” he said. “That stuck with me.”

Ross Fraser, spokesman for Feeding America, said in recent years food banks have started prioritizing providing healthier, nutrient-rich foods to families. Most of the food collected by food banks is actually donated from manufacturers, farmers, retail stores and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Only about 5 percent comes from traditional food drives, he said.

Because food banks also can purchase food wholesale at a significant discount, most would prefer cash over food donations because they can stretch that money further and it’s far less labor-intensive than sorting cans.

Still, Fraser said the benefits of organized food drives are that they raise awareness about hunger. If a child helps a parent put together a bag of goods to donate, it can be a teaching moment.

Fraser had not heard about O’Neill’s initiative.

O’Neill’s modernized food drive may be the perfect hybrid. O’Neill knew that people like to feel as if they’re making a tangible impact rather than just writing a check. It’s why people are typically more inclined to help an individual in need than a cause.

So, while cash may still be the most effective way to feed the hungry, O’Neill’s solution allows businesses to virtually collect the foods that will not only help solve someone’s hunger, but also improve their health.

—Colby Itkowitz | The Washington Post