With coronavirus pandemic crisis well underway, we’re all reminded of the essential role that food banks play in our communities.
Food banks feed some 46.5 million people in need across the United States alone, including 12 million children and 7 million seniors.
Food banks often act as food storage and distribution depots for smaller front line agencies. They capture and collect surplus or donated food and deliver it to the people who need it most.
In essence, food banks acquire donated food, much of which would otherwise be wasted. They acquire it from farms, manufacturers, distributors, retail stores, consumers, and other sources, making it available to those in need through an established network of community agencies.
At the moment, food banks across the United States and worldwide are squeezed between short supplies and surging demand from needy families as the coronavirus pandemic has put more than 26 million out of work in America alone.
In New York, more than a third of the city’s food banks have closed for lack of supplies, donations, or volunteers, who are harder to recruit because of infection fears, according to the New York Mission Society. In San Diego, a local food bank waits on a $1 million order it placed weeks ago. Chicago and Houston food banks say they are nearly out of staples.
Before the pandemic, 1 in 7 Americans relied on food banks, according to Feeding America, a national network of the food banks. Now, demand has doubled or tripled at many organizations.
Yet, a lot of food is being wasted across farms, grocery stores, and shut down restaurants.
Therefore, the priority for food banks is capturing and redistributing all this food to where it’s most needed.
To help your food bank serve as many food insecure individuals and families as possible, we share some of our top picks for the most effective food bank strategies and fundraising ideas.
Top 9 Food Bank Fundraising Ideas
1. “Give a Gift”
Combining two of the fundraising essentials: online fundraising and making donations tangible, this fundraising idea guarantees to increase your donations.
On your food bank’s website, highlight the ‘Most Needed Items’ such as canned beans, toilet paper, rice, or some of the harder to get (but still very much needed) items like fresh fruit or vegetables.
List each item alongside its picture. Then, set up a donation button next to each item so that donors can ‘give apples’ or ‘give potatoes’.
Set up the donation links so that they lead to donation forms where donors can choose ‘the amount of the item’ that they wish to give. Make these specific (e.g. 5 pounds of apples buy a 4-member family an apple a day for a week’).
This makes donations tangible. Donating $10 just isn’t the same as giving a specific item to a specific number of people for a specific amount of time. Donors like being able to clearly visualize the impact of their donations.
Pro tip: If setting this up is a bit complicated for you at this moment in time and you’d prefer having a single donation form – still tie donations to impact. To do this, set up a donation form and add a sentence to each donation amount stating what that amount will “buy/provide/supply/enable.”
2. Food Collection
Food collection is in no way a novel fundraising idea, but it’s a solid staple for food banks around the world. If you’re not capitalizing on food collection, you might be missing out on a huge chunk of donations.
Reach out to local restaurants, cafes, resorts, and more for food donations. Stop by those locations in person if and when possible and explain that you’re leading a food bank. Ask if they regularly have any food items that, rather than throwing away, they could donate to the bank. Many will likely be willing to donate items that are reaching the sell-by dates, surplus items, and other leftover foods.
If you’re reading this during the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, the situation might look a little bit different. In most countries, restaurants and similar establishments have been ordered to close. However, while this certainly makes things harder – there are still ways.
For example, in Singapore, a large resort complex was closing for a month due to the coronavirus lockdown. The resort arranged for the restaurants on its premises to donate bread, vegetables, fruit, meat, dairy products, and 3,600 eggs to The Food Bank Singapore.
If you’ve missed out on this opportunity as the restaurants, hotels, and air companies in your area have been closing down, not all is lost. Many of them are still doing deliveries and might still have surplus food to give. Make sure you reach out, connect, and see if they can donate to your food bank.
3. Fill the Bucket
Fill the Bucket fundraiser works through a peer-to-peer fundraising system. In essence, while peer-to-peer fundraisers often collect donations online, the essence of the peer-to-peer fundraising system is working with your supporters and encouraging them to raise funds on your behalf by reaching out to their peers (friends, co-workers, and family members) and asking them to donate. These donations are ultimately received by your food bank.
Your supporters can also fundraise on your behalf ‘live’ or in person – in the streets, at work, at events, and more.
Make sure you have branded buckets/tins available for your fundraisers to use if they’re collecting monetary donations in person.
These buckets should be available for them to order for their workplace or business, such as a till counter, bar top, or reception area or their public fundraising event.
Make sure all the buckets you send out have seals with them and a securing chain. Also ensure that your fundraisers are well-informed when it comes to all the legal regulations, as well as any of your organizational policies (e.g. whether you approve of door-to-door fundraising or not). Ideally, you’d also send your fundraisers t-shirts, stickers, and more to help them grab people’s attention, all fully branded with your colors.
The fundraisers would then transfer you the collected amount.
Pro tip: If you don’t want your fundraisers to collect in public locations (i.e. on the streets or at events), you can simply have buckets available to order on your website for organizations to order (see below).
4. Food Drives
Food drives are one of the main methods that food banks use to collect donations.
While you can host them yourself, to maximize the number of people who find out about, and donate to, your food drive, use peer-to-peer fundraising once again.
Although food drives are not as cost-effective as monetary fundraising, they do serve as a tool for raising awareness and building community support.
Encourage your supporters and website/social media visitors to organize food drives on your behalf in local schools, churches, office buildings, or gyms or wherever they’d be able to host. Specify which types of food you would like to collect (e.g. canned goods, bread and pasta, etc.).
Make sure you provide your fundraisers with the necessary information about your food bank so that donors know where the food is going.
There’s a lot of potential in food drives. To really get the most out of them, help your fundraisers (or advise them) to create a theme for their food drive. For example, ‘Make Every Bean Count’ could be a fundraiser aiming to collect beans and legumes, “Whole Grain Wednesday” fundraiser would aim to gather healthy grains and cereals, and “All Cleaned Up” could focus on collecting basic hygiene items.
Pro tip: Host an annual food drive. Make sure you name it and brand it. This can increase community awareness of hunger issues and boost food donations. For example, you can have an annual “Trick or Can” event where community groups “Trick or Treat” for canned goods during Halloween.
5. Partnerships With Supermarkets
Food bins located in supermarkets – where supermarket customers directly donate food items – have long been employed as a fundraising strategy by food banks.
However, since there can be a great mismatch between demand (what food banks need) and the donations that shoppers drop off at those collection points, this might not be the best option for food banks and their beneficiaries.
Instead, consider partnering directly with supermarkets.
For some supermarkets, directly partnering with food banks remains core to their corporate and social responsibility.
In the UK, for example, Tesco (one of the largest supermarket chains in the country) has a long-standing national partnership with The Trussell Trust (which oversees the running of some 1,200 centers in the UK) which includes both permanent collection points in its stores open all year round, and the annual Tesco Food Collection, a three-day event in November that sees volunteers gather additional food in the run-up to Christmas, typically the busiest period for food banks.
Pro tip: As a food bank, you can also lobby the government for better solutions. In France, this has brought about remarkable results. A grassroots campaign in France – led by shoppers, anti-poverty campaigners, and those opposed to food waste – resulted in a law that bans supermarkets from throwing away or destroying unsold food, forcing them instead to donate it to charities and food banks.
6. Farm to Foodbank
With the large expansion of fresh produce offerings at food banks and pantries in recent years, creating a farm to food bank program has become more important than ever.
While plenty of food waste happens in our own homes, it also happens on farms. The USDA estimates that a third of all produce from farmers goes uneaten, amounting to about $161.6 billion in waste. Much of this waste has to do with logistical issues, but some food is also wasted due to cosmetic reasons. “Ugly produce,” is often too “unattractive” to sell – whether it’s bruised, larger or smaller than ideal, or oddly shaped – so it ends up getting tossed.
In recent years, farm to food bank programs has been expanding around the country to recover hundreds of millions of surplus and so-called “ugly” produce for those in need.
The main goal of creating or joining such a program is to enable your food bank to pay significantly below-market prices for produce surplus and produce seconds, or ugly produce (otherwise delicious and nutritious food).
There are now more than 10 farms to food bank programs in the U.S.
Feeding America reported that in 2017 they received 1.47 billion pounds of produce. Of that amount, roughly 10% of it comes from farms. In California, where 50 percent of the country’s produce is grown, the California Association of Food Banks (CAFB) Farm to Family program recovers 140 million pounds of produce a year. This produce then goes to 40 different food banks that partner with over 5,000 food pantries.
So, if you aren’t already – get on board with a “farm to food bank” program. And it’s not only about the “ugly” produce. You can collect surplus food too.
Pro tip: You don’t have to collaborate only with big farmers. Edmonton’s Food Bank got creative with their Plant, Grow, Share a Row program. This program invites local gardeners to grow an extra row of vegetables for donation to their food bank. They highlight the best crops for donation and invite the farmers too. While these donations might be smaller, they add up and they’re a wonderful way to engage the community from the ground up!
7. Drop the Change
This fundraising idea, at first glance, might be easily overlooked or neglected – especially when compared to large-scale partnerships with farms and corporations.
However, don’t underestimate the power of a simple ‘drop the coin’ fundraiser. Pocket change adds up. McDonald’s simply put a coin collection canister on the counter and watched the nickels, dimes and quarters add up (in the case of McDonald’s, those coins added up to a whopping $27.1 million in 2014).
So, choose a busy business (like a bakery or a café). The busier the business the more money you’ll raise. The best place for a donation box is next to the cash register. And choose those businesses that don’t have or allow tip jars! Have a system for emptying the jars/cans regularly so they don’t become a target for thieves.
To put a spin on this idea, turn it into a challenge! The average household in the U.S. has a lot of loose change tucked away in various drawers, jars, and piggy banks. These unused coins can be targeted as part of a “coin wars fundraiser” approach where you encourage individuals, teams, or groups to compete for who can bring in the most change. Or simply put two jars next to each other and have people “vote” with their change (e.g. ‘pineapple on pizza’ or ‘fruit doesn’t go on pizza’; ‘puppies’ or ‘kittens’ – or anything else that will engage people to choose one option over the other)!
Pro tip: Strategically choose places where customers are likely to pay in cash and have spare change. So no car dealership or computer shops.
And contactless donations at checkout might end up being the new donation jars – especially for locations where larger purchases are made!
8. Office Fun
Partner with local and national businesses to raise funds for your food bank. The sky’s the limit when it comes to this one.
For example, you could have the business you’re partnering with run a ‘challenge’ where whoever is late to a meeting donates $1 to a jar/account or pays $5 to dress down for a day. For an added bonus, ask upper management to pay double and/or match the donation. This is one of the easiest and most effective ways to raise money in the workplace.
You could ask local movie and/or performance theatres to charge a certain amount of canned goods as admission for one night.
Ask the boss to join in the fun! For example, if their employees can raise X number of dollars for X pounds of food, the boss will (shave/cut their hair, buy lunch for everyone, give everyone an afternoon off, etc.).
Have the office go green for a day – with employees walking or cycling to work and donating the money they save to your food bank.
You could also have the business divide up by departments and then have each group collect cans and make a sculpture out of cans. The winning team gets lunch or ice cream.
You could also develop an “adopt-a-month” program. This would allow civic organizations/churches/businesses to select a month where it is their responsibility to provide food to your food bank.
Pro tip: Make use of monthly contributions. Get businesses, churches, clubs or organizations to pledge a certain amount to your food bank on a monthly basis. Donations could also be in-kind, wherein a group may volunteer to stock shelves or sponsor a food drive once a month.
9. Competitions All-Around
Competitions are a great fundraising tool for food banks!
For example, you could partner with a business and have their different departments challenge one another to see which can bring in the most food for a food drive. Have the management keep a running tally posted in visible areas and offer a pizza party or breakfast to the winners.
With schools, plan a penny war between classrooms. Each class collects change in a container. Students throw dollar bills into the container of another classroom in order to “cancel out” that class’ change. In other words, change in the container equals “positive” points, while bills equal “negative” points. The team with the most positive points at the end of the war wins!
You could also organize a contest between classrooms or grade levels with different categories (e.g. most protein, most diverse food, raise their weight in food, and more). You could also set it up with the school so that for one day or several, the school library allows students to “pay fines” with canned fruit or other food items.
Whether you’re working with a school, a church, or a business, you could do a Stuff-a-Bus, Fill-a-Truck, fill the Principal’s office, gymnasium, truck, bus, or another designated area with food. Outline a map and have the participants fill in the area with food.
Bonus Insights and Notes – Food Banks and the Coronavirus Pandemic
1. Essential Supplies Kits
While food banks, as the name suggests, usually focus on collecting and distributing food, in the light of the current situation with the coronavirus pandemic many food banks across the world are now creating ‘essential supplies kits’.
For example, The Global FoodBanking Network shared a best-case practice highlighting a food bank in Uruguay now making food and hygiene product kits for a family of 5 for one week. FoodCycle in Indonesia is providing kits consisting of rice, eggs, cooking oil, soy sauce, chicken stock, teabags, and biscuits.
Many food banks are now recognizing the broader need for supplies beyond food for those they serve.
2. Drive-Thru Pantry
Consider offering drive-thru or mobile pantries in some of your service areas – either at the food bank or a partner agency location – to limit person-to-person contact.
3. Think About Delivery
Delivery has taken a whole new level of importance. A Feeding America food bank decided to think in a creative and resourceful way and start working with a school bus company in their community. They now use the drivers and buses that would otherwise sit idle to deliver food packages to families.
While much uncertainty lies ahead, we know your food bank is committed to feeding the hungry, and aiding and nourishing our communities.
We know that your fundraising needs are changing rapidly. Many food banks are now relying, more than ever, on online and mobile giving to raise funds and engage their donors. Hope your food bank is
Hopefully, this article helps your food bank raise the much-needed funds and prepare for, respond to, and eventually aid your recovery from the impacts of coronavirus pandemic.
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