Keep your cans to yourself

Shelves of canned foods. Photo by: PublicDomainArchive on Pixabay

A Can’s Journey

    Fresh corn is harvested in the fall, once it’s ripe. The corn is loaded into trucks and driven to the canning plant. The ears of corn travel down a conveyor belt and into a kernel remover, where rotating cylinders remove the leaves, leaving the corn exposed. The ears of corn travel down a chute, where knives remove each kernel quickly, and the kernels then enter a refiner, which removes anything larger than a single corn kernel. Everything else is set aside for future use as animal food.

The kernels continue to a starchy water mixture, which transports them to bleach. Once the bleached kernels have been inspected, they pour into the tin cans. A brine of water, salt and sugar pours into each can to preserve the corn. Lids seal each can, and each can is tested to ensure that no leaks exist. The cans then become sterilized, ensuring they remain sterile for up to a year and a half. After tasting samples and attaching labels, employees pack and ship pallets to grocery stores.
Grocery store employees stack the cans of corn on shelves, ready for purchase. A customer selects the cans, places them in the cart, and checks out. The can travels to its new home in a plastic bag, before settling on a kitchen shelf. The can lives there, unused, for a while, before the purchaser finally picks it up again. This time, it returns to a plastic bag, and is dropped in a cardboard box labeled “Food Donations.”

 The Can Conundrum

            Canned food drives become increasingly more common as the holidays approach. Empty boxes wait in churches, schools and events, waiting for soups, beans and other non-perishable goods to fill them up. But how useful really is all the food that comes from these drives? Don’t people get sick of eating chicken noodle soup and beans? Even these canned good do create full meals, what use are they if people don’t own the proper kitchen equipment to prepare them?
            One issue with canned foods is nutritional value. Many canned goods contain high levels of sodium, and lack the nutrition that fresh foods provide. The salt and sugar added in the brine serves its purpose as a preservative, but adds unnecessary calories. The USDA reports that 130 grams of raw garbanzo beans contain 31 milligrams of sodium. The same amount of Bush’s Best canned garbanzo beans contains 470 milligrams — twenty percent of the recommended daily intake. One cup of Kroger Chunky Chicken Noodle Ready to Serve soup has twenty-nine percent, at 690 milligrams. A lifetime of eating canned foods is a ticking time bomb, set to explode with future heart disease. By donating money to different organizations, they purchase and provide healthier food to the people they feed.
            Feeding America reports that “food drives can raise 700 pounds per distribution location — roughly 583 meals. Conversely, raising and donating $700 to your local food bank would translate to 2100 meals.” A monetary donation allows food banks to buy exactly what they need, or, alternatively, they use the combined donations to buy food in bulk. This often lowers the price per unit and allows people to save a little money while feeding many. Alternatively, reach out to local food banks, and ask what specific items they need using Feeding America’s food bank finder. Sheryl Stoddard, Vice President of Administration at Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan, says that her organization purchases food from these distributors, and plans meals accordingly.
            “We are able to purchase healthy, nutritious food at a less expensive rate than an individual could in a store,” Stoddard said. “Although, we are always happy to take food donations.”
            Kids Coalition Against Hunger’s Coordinator Lori Stillwell says that their nonprofit organization does not accept any food donations — they’re run solely by monetary donations.
            “For Kids Coalition, no one can give us food, we only accept money,” Stillwell said. “We provide the actual rice, dried vegetables, protein powder and soy to make the food. For some of our packages, we prepare some of the food so the people making the food can taste what they’re making, but mainly our food will go to people that are helping us, or different organizations that can give that food out. In Haiti, we’re able to serve 4,000 children a day with our food.”
            Common household items — such as soap, feminine products, shampoo, toilet paper, and others — often get left out of donations, yet people need them just as much. Donating money to food banks allows them to purchase these things for people who need them and may not otherwise afford them. Other organizations use monetary donations to brighten people’s days. Alysia Rollins, Assistant District Administrator for Key Club International, helped a local high school to spread Christmas cheer.
            “One thing we just did is a Christmas party at one of the high schools,” Rollins said. “We go out and buy Christmas gifts for families that get recommended by the different high schools. We buy the gifts, and then the high school students come up with different crafts. We have a DJ, and we just kind of have a day where they can come and enjoy their Christmastime.”
            Some food banks, like Gleaners, double as soup kitchens. They prepare and serve meals to people who may be homeless, don’t own kitchen appliances to use, or otherwise unable to make a meal themselves. Gleaners, headquartered in Detroit, Michigan, operates five distribution centers in southeastern Michigan, and provides food to 499 partner soup kitchens, food pantries, shelters. Their website also states that they work with local and national food production companies to obtain food otherwise wasted. The USDA estimates that the United States wastes nearly 30 to 40 percent of its food supply. Meanwhile, Feeding America reports that roughly 40 million Americans struggle with hunger — nearly the same amount in poverty. If more of that food was donated to people who need it, or even sold at a fraction of the cost, it would help solve both the food waste problem and the hunger problem.

The Psychology of Donation

            If monetary donations are so much better for service organizations, why do canned food drives still remain so popular? People want to feel good about their donations. They want to feel like they’re making a difference in people’s lives.
            “I think most people will think that [donating food] is easier, just because a lot of people have stuff that’s just in their house,” Rollins said. “They want to give it away just to get rid of it, but still feel like they’re donating. Because it’s a physical object, [people feel like] they’re actually giving the food away.. With money, they’re giving the money away, but it’s going towards a certain project or fundraiser, so they feel like they’re being a part of the donation.”
            Another reason that people may prefer physical donations over monetary is doubt. People are more likely to trust that their food will go to people who really need it, but who’s to say that the money will? People may fear that organizations will lie about what their funding is used for, and that people will pocket their donations.
            “It’s easy to go buy cans, or look in your cabinets and get cans out of there — that may be expired — and then give them to different organizations,” Stillwell said. “With money, people don’t know where their money is going. Hopefully, they give 10 dollars and go out and buy food with it to give to different organizations.”
            While canned goods may be easy to donate, they are certainly not the most beneficial.
“With money, if you ask a random stranger whether they would donate money or food, I think they would prefer to donate the food, just because it’s easier for them,” Kristy Godley, Circle K’s District Governor said. “They know that that’s probably going to go directly to who needs it. With money, they don’t know how much is getting to where it needs to go all the time. Some people are just more hesitant to give out money than to just say, ‘Here’s a canned good that I probably won’t use, and someone else needs it more.’”

 How You Can Help

            The best ways to help organizations? Monetary donations and volunteer work.
“Volunteering is very rewarding,” Stillwell said. “When you know there’s hungry kids and families, and you’re able to provide for them, I think that’s the most rewarding part of it.”  
People unable to donate their money, or worry that what they give isn’t enough, can find local charities to donate their time to. Many charities rely heavily on volunteers to package, distribute, or even grow their food.
Kids Coalition Against Hunger packs boxes full of packets of dried food, which then get sent out to where they’re needed. Volunteers pack all of the boxes.
“Yes, we need food, we need money to do all this, but I feel like once people actually take time to serve, then they’re gonna be more amped to do it more often,” Stillwell said. “I love to serve, that’s my life. People don’t understand it, but until you do it, you don’t get it, you know? Just knowing that you’re giving back to people that actually need it, that’s what it’s all about. You don’t need recognition, you just need to do it.”
Many organizations involved with KCAH, like Circle K — a college level service organization — organize their own food packing events.
“Something you’ll find common with a lot of Circle K clubs is a lot of us tend to do a Kids Against Hunger food project,” Godley said. “That one is always super fun, but some clubs find it hard to raise the money, because you have to pay up front to package the meals that we do. Once you raise the money, you can host a food packaging event, with all your volunteers coming together. It’s an amazing project, and I know my home club at Northwood University, we do it every year, just a small one. It’s always super fun. We invite our whole school to join us, and a lot of them don’t realize where the food goes. One third generally stays local, one third goes wherever it’s needed internationally, and then another third is stored in Detroit in a warehouse to be sent out for disaster relief.”
Opportunities exist for people of all ages to get involved. Many high schools operate Key Clubs for students to join. After high school, Circle K accepts members in college. Even after graduation, local Kiwanis clubs accept new members.
“A lot of [funding that Key Club receives] goes to different service projects that we do,” Rollins said. “Mainly, for the district, one of our big ones is that we do a food packaging at our conference in March. District wise, it goes toward administrative expenses, but for the individual clubs, it goes toward a lot of service project that they put on. One of the big ones is raising money by doing a fashion show, and that goes towards Kids Against Hunger.”
Gleaners operates the Livingston Victory Garden in Brighton, Michigan, where they grow fresh, organic food for donation pantries. Rows and rows of beds for vegetables line the gardens. Wooden stakes stick out of the ground, each with a sign attached so that volunteers know what grows where. Volunteers create beds to grow food, spread compost, seeds and mulch, weed the gardens, transplant and harvest crops. The food grown here provides people with the nutritious food they lack from donated canned goods. The garden ceases to exist without monetary donations and volunteers’ hard work.
While canned food is a convenient way to donate this holiday season, it certainly is not the most nutritious or cost-effective way. Instead of dropping a can in that box, why not find a local charity to send a check to, or volunteer with?

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