No one needs to tell you that right now is an incredibly expensive time to eat out. Whether you’re at the grocery store, where prices have risen nearly 6 percent over the past year, or eating at your favorite restaurant, everyone has felt the pinch of high food prices. But the impact of high food prices is felt disproportionately among low-income families, who spend up to 30 percent of what they earn on food each month.
As a result, more than 44 million Americans do not have enough food to eat. This burden hits children particularly hard. And food banks around the country say demand for their services is dramatically higher this year than in years past. At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, as unemployment skyrocketed and millions struggled to put food on the table, federal government relief programs poured billions of dollars into food banks and other charities to help meet the unprecedented need. Those programs have since ended, leaving food banks to meet this increased demand with fewer resources.
Which means it’s time for everyone, especially those of us who care deeply about restaurants, to step up in a big way. Even if you’re dealing with your own budget crisis—and honestly, who isn’t? Times are tough! — a few dollars in the hands of a food bank can be transformative for a person who is food insecure. You may not be able to solve the swirling inferno that is late capitalism in America, but you can put your spare change to good use.
Why food banks?
Food banks are uniquely qualified to address America’s hunger crisis. They have long since done the work on the ground, despite years of deep cuts to food assistance programs both state by state and nationally. Food banks receive federal funding, but donations from individuals make up the majority of the budget used to feed people in soup kitchens, food pantries and meal programs across the country.
These food banks have finely honed the science of fighting hunger, deftly targeting those most in need. They have created programs to ensure that senior citizens have access to healthy foods that keep them full and help prevent diseases such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes. In 2022 alone, Feeding America’s BackPack program distributed 54 million shelf-stable, easy-to-prepare snacks and meals to children to feed them on weekends.
As people with a vested interest in food culture, it’s important to balance our appetite for coveted restaurant reservations with an equally passionate commitment to fair dining. For better or worse, culinary culture is now popular culture, and that comes with many negative unintended consequences. Restaurants played a huge role in gentrifying countless neighborhoods, forcing both families and long-established small businesses from their homes as the fashionable and wealthy crowds moved to Bushwick, Austin, Nashville and Charleston. Sometimes people in poverty live just steps away from the county’s busiest restaurants. And foods that were once cheap—tacos, hot chicken, and green vegetables—have become luxury items, increasing in price.
Simply put, our increased interest in food has somehow made it harder for some people to get enough to eat. It is our responsibility to help bridge the gap.
What’s the best thing to donate to a food bank?
It’s not as simple as just taking a few cans of food and leaving them in the pantry. You should give money – as much as you can afford, and often. Because food banks buy in bulk, they have much more purchasing power than an individual in a grocery store. Depending on your location, food banks can provide between two and eight meals to people in need for one dollar, about what you would spend on a can of beans.
With individual donations, food banks can match your $10 or $15 with corporate grants, federal aid dollars and negotiated food prices to get the most out of every dollar. Canned goods can’t buy the trucks, gas, and labor needed to package and ship the thousands of pounds of food distributed each month, but money can. When you give money, you maximize your impact.
Many people see donating to food banks (or another charity) as a way to dispose of their unwanted trash. Donating decades-old cans from your pantry is not only a dumb move that’s disrespectful to the people you’re supposed to be trying to help, but it also costs food banks – who are responsible for sorting and disposing of items. which they cannot use — time and money. These “gifts” can also have negative unintended effects, such as when food bank clients receive food that is moldy, worm-infested, or riddled with bacteria.
Thanks to the wonders of technology, it’s now ridiculously easy to give money to a food bank that serves your local community. Most accept online donations, and many offer the ability to set up a recurring donation automatically withdrawn from your bank account or credit card each month. If you want to further maximize your impact, many corporate employers offer charitable matching (up to a percentage) that doesn’t cost you a penny.
At this time of year, just before Thanksgiving and Christmas, hunger tends to be in focus, as evidenced by the canned food drives and turkey giveaways that will be happening in the coming weeks. Donations to food banks peak in November and December and are needed, but hunger is a year-round problem that requires constant attention.
But you don’t have to buy cans from the grocery store or organize a canning store. Just estimate how much you spend at restaurants, take a percentage you can comfortably afford, and give.
Vance Lump is an illustrator in the Pacific Northwest.