The problem is that, economically speaking, it's totally insane.
Scouring your cupboard for unwanted canned goods to donate during the holiday season is a tradition for many. You feel good about ridding your kitchen of generic brand cans of French green beans, and hungry Americans, in theory, are grateful to receive much-needed food during the giving season.
Unfortunately, as Mathew Yglesias, Slate's business and economics correspondant, notes: "The problem is that, economically speaking, it's totally insane." It makes much more sense, according to him, to cut a check.
First, Yglesias points out, America is "not a country stricken with famine." Americans are likely more in need of funds to pay for necessities like rent or health care instead of food.
At first glance, the number of those who go hungry in the United States is startling. According to Bread for the World, 36.3 million people (13 million children) live in households that experience hunger or the risk of hunger.
But these statistics are really about people feeling hunger at some point in the year (and not from dieting). To be sure, it is a bad thing for people in one of the wealthiest countries in the world to go hungry, but compared to elsewhere it is a very minor problem.
Malnutrition in the United States more often means obesity and high blood pressure. In other parts of the world it can mean death. About 16,000 children die a day from hunger-related causes. And they die in places outside of North America.
There is also the issue of efficiency — attempting to maximize the benefit a contribution will make — in giving money over food. Some Americans do not have stockpiles of canned food in their homes to donate. They might purchase cans from a store specifically to donate. Yglesias says, "having 100 different people go out and pay retail prices for a few cans of green beans is extraordinarily inefficient relative to pooling those funds to buy the beans in bulk."
Charity organizations benefit from economies of scale. Organizations can purchase food for pennies on the dollar because they buy in bulk. They also cut down on processing costs of receiving assortments of food by buying their own.
Also, if the food given is packaged in standardized boxes, the Center for High Impact Philanthropy says that as much as half of it will go uneaten. High sodium soups may go to people with high blood pressure and a bag of peanuts might go to those with nut allergies.
Personal checks are easier for charities to process compared to foodstuff and give the charity the resources to do what it knows about best — helping others.
The Center for High Impact Philanthropy has a High Impact Holiday Giving guide "written for individuals and their advisors who seek to optimize the social impact of their philanthropic activities during this traditional season of giving." To provide emergency food for hungry families, researchers recommend people make monetary donations, instead of food contributions, to a regional food bank.
For some, talk of economic efficiency in charity does not seem in the spirit of the season. For others, if you are going to give you should try to maximize your impact.
But for nearly everyone, if it is between giving a canned whole chicken/ and nothing, experts say — give the can.