Helping for the Holidays: Food Rescuing Ushers in a New Era of Volunteerism

By Amanda A Swan

As the holidays come and go, many American families will begin cleaning out their pantries to donate to organizations that help their neighbors in need. You know the drill: Every November, we are barraged with requests to donate non-perishable food items by our offices, our children’s schools, churches, and other organizations who organize canned food drives.

While donations to these types of food drives are inarguably a good way to help the hungry, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t a better way. After all, canned food is heavy and difficult for charities to manage, sort, and distribute. If a soup kitchen is operating out of the back of a church, it might not have the manpower or tools to sort huge quantities of heavy canned goods. It’s time to reconsider our response to hunger.

Cash Instead of Cans?

Because cans are so unwieldy for organizations to manage and distribute, recent pushback against traditional canned food drives has pointed out that efforts to serve the hungry would be more effective if people donated money to food pantries and other organizations that help the homeless instead of making donations. After all, a box full of randomly donated goods may not meet the needs of the distributing organization, and charitable organizations can often buy food that would be better suited to demand at slashed wholesale prices.

Your $5 will go a lot further towards helping those in need in the hands of a non-profit volunteer purchaser than in your own hands at the local supermarket. So why don’t people just donate money to these charities? Journalist Katherine Martinko argues that it’s because “writing a check isn’t nearly as gratifying to the giver as handing over a bag of canned goods.”

She’s piggybacking on Canadian Tristin Hopper’s idea, that people get a certain “generosity high,” so to speak, from the physical aspect of donation. Hopper writes in the Vancouver Sun that, “Non-profits know that people get a buzz from loudly dropping $6 worth of cans into an office hamper…They also know it’s a tougher sell to convince schools and offices to merely pass the hat for the hungry, rather than big photo-worthy gestures like building towers of creamed corn.” And perhaps, they’re both right. Charity, like all things, can have a self-serving aspect. Signing a check made out to a local food bank or entering your credit card number to make a donation online doesn’t feel as good or as satisfying as taking physical and tangible actions to help the hungry, so people aren’t as likely to do it.

But it seems to me that the solution is not so dichotomous. There are more than two options: charitable acts are not split in a stiff binary of either donating money or canned food. While Martinko and Hopper might be correct in saying that money is worth more than canned food, there is something you can give that’s even more valuable than either of these things. If you want to have the most direct result on those in needs, consider donating a few hours of your time.

Food Rescuing: A Different Solution

While you might be imagining giving up your Saturday off to sort canned food at a food pantry or prepare and serve a meal at a homeless shelter, I have a different solution in mind. 60 million tons of American produce is thrown away every year, and a huge chunk of it is thrown away by grocery stores and restaurants. Usually these items are still perfectly edible and just slightly misshapen or discolored. In either case, this food could certainly still be used to prepare healthier, tastier meals for the hungry than something poured out of an aluminum can that’s been sitting in someone’s pantry for two years.

So, what if you just swung by a local supermarket or your neighborhood restaurant after work and picked up some of that food that was destined for the dumpster? You could become a food rescuer, someone who reroutes edible food that would otherwise be disposed of, by donating mere hours of your time each week.

Imagine that you could pick up one donation of trash bound produce from the local grocery every week in December. In just a few weeks, you would have rescued a dozen boxes of perfectly edible food. By Christmas, you would have diverted more than 600 pounds of food waste from a landfill. You wouldn’t have to fork over any extra cash during the holiday season, when money is exceptionally tight. You wouldn’t have to figure out how to plan to spend a whole Saturday volunteering for a nonprofit, when you’re already trying to find time to Christmas shop during weekends that are already filled to the brim with holiday parties and school recitals. And you’d be contributing to the prevention of hunger in America in a way that’s just as accessible, but far more useful, than cleaning out the canned food in your pantry.

Most people don’t do this because it seems complicated to organize. You’d have to call the grocery store or restaurant you want to pick up food from, and find a charity willing to take the food. But an innovative idea has eliminated this problem and made it incredibly easy for willing community members to participate in this kind of activism. Budding nonprofit Food Rescue US has designed a smartphone app that allows you to find willing donors and recipients with a few taps, and schedule a pickup and drop off time, all from your smartphone. It’s a great idea because it allows people to find the same physical gratification they get from donating canned food while channeling their energy in a much more useful way.

Whether it’s right or wrong, journalist Tristin Hopper is right when he says that people and organizations like to have a tangible aspect to their charity. It’s true that there’s something rewarding about seeing a photo of yourself with all your coworkers standing next to a monstrous pyramid of canned food, but I think we can find just as much satisfaction from seeing our back seats and car trunks filled with fresh produce that would’ve otherwise been thrown away.  When your coworkers see what a difference you’ve made, perhaps they’ll be inspired to become food rescuers too.  By changing our methods, we can make a greater impact on the hungry individuals in our community.

Making the Difference

If you’re still not convinced that food rescuing is a great alternative to canned food drives, consider the difference in impact you’ll make on people in need. Fresh food is much healthier than the canned food that is typically donated. While it might be true that, as long as no sugar is added, a can of pears and a fresh pear have roughly the same nutritional value, much of the canned food that is donated does have salt or sugar added.  Even more of this food is just not nutritionally practical. You can’t nourish a struggling body on cream of mushroom soup or condensed milk. And even for foods with the same nutritional value, the BPA resin on the inside coating of the can could potentially cause dangerous health effects.

But even more importantly, we have to consider the difference felt by the hungry people being served. What is tangible for volunteers is tangible for recipients as well. There is an extremely important psychological difference between being offered a box of fresh, nutritious food and a box of mismatched cans when seeking nourishment from a food pantry. There is a crucial difference between being offered whatever a soup kitchen could manage to make, and being offered food people would’ve paid for in a restaurant when seeking warmth after a long, cold day. There is dignity in choices.

The way that our charitable acts make us feel about ourselves makes a difference, but the way that our volunteerism makes others feel should have an even greater impact. Making those we seek to serve and help feel important, worthwhile, and valued can be every bit as important as filling their bellies with food. The hearts of our struggling community members are often just as in need of nourishment as their bodies.

So this holiday season, I encourage you to make a new kind of difference by becoming a food rescuer. It will take you 90 seconds to sign up after you’ve downloaded the app to your smartphone from You can immediately start rescuing landfill-bound food and redirecting it to hungry bellies. You’ll feel better about making a tangible difference as a food rescuer than you would if you just wrote a check or punched in your credit card number. Skip the office canned food pyramid without guilt and do something better to help the hungry. Spend just a few afternoons filling your backseat with food donations instead —  I promise taking concrete action to help others will fill you with a holiday warmth like nothing else could.