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Food donations spike during the holidays. Here's why nonprofits also can use your cash donations.

Even with visits to the local food pantry, many families struggle to get enough to eat. Food banks say rethinking our donations can help them stretch their money.
Marvin Joseph
The Washington Post/Getty Images
Even with visits to the local food pantry, many families struggle to get enough to eat. Food banks say rethinking our donations can help them stretch their money.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, estimates from Feeding America, a Chicago-based nonprofit that's spent a decade compiling local food insecurity data, indicated about 16,340 people in McLean County (or about 9.5% of the population) didn't have access to affordable, nutritious food. That was 2019.

New projections from the nonprofit network that represents more than 200 food banks nationwide now suggest that percentage will jump by a couple of points, pushing the percentage of people in McLean County who are considered "food insecure" up to 11.5% in 2020.

Donating food isn't a new response: Midwest Food Bank executive director Tara Ingram said it's typical for nonprofits to see an uptick in donations around the holidays.

But what's less known is just how far some nonprofits can stretch a dollar — meaning that, if a donor can give cash, the donation can go further than products like food or other nonperishables.

To be clear: Donations made in good faith are appreciated no matter what. But Ingram and other area nonprofit leaders say they appreciate monetary gifts because of the flexibility it provides.

"We can take $1 and we can turn into $30 worth of food. How we do that is kind of like magic."
Tara Ingram, Midwest Food Bank

"We can take $1 and we can turn into $30 worth of food. How we do that is kind of like magic — I wish I could walk into the grocery store and make that happen for my own grocery bill," Ingram said.

Part of being able to stretch the dollar is a reliance on a volunteer workforce. Part of it also is due to sourcing methods.

Ingram said Midwest Food Bank has relationships with suppliers that can result in large-scale food donations that come to the Normal-based pantry for free, with the cost of gas to get them excepted.

"We work really hard to find donated loads of food from large manufacturers, from grocery stores who are getting rid of excess, lots of different sources of food," she said.

"Between the donations and using volunteer help and support, we can maximize every dollar that comes in — we can turn a donation into over $30 worth of food. A donation of food is greatly appreciated from the community, but we can stretch (money) even further."

Home Sweet Home Ministries CEO Matt Burgess said the Bloomington-based nonprofit is always grateful for donations of food and other items, but cash gives them a flexibility that items don't.

"It's not that those aren't useful, helpful and appreciated, because they are," he said. "However, people are motivated to give is helpful to us. But what gives us the best utility is when a financial donation comes in an unrestricted manner."

Burgess said when HSHM sources products, its status as a nonprofit means sales tax won't be applied to those purchases — and the way they buy those products is different than one might think.

"Other ways that we are able to make more efficient use of money is by ordering in bulk," he said. "We're going to order a lot more green beans than a household does, so we can get a better price, or different things like special discounts or deals from different sources, based on the volume that we order. Money ... goes farther, when we are able to be the ones doing the transactions."

Similarly, not every nonprofit that gives out food is equipped to store it, which is the case at Western Avenue Community Center in Bloomington.

Executive director Mary Tackett said the nonprofit has added giving out boxes of nonperishable food items to its services, but there are limits to what the center can do with food.

"One of the issues that comes with product donation is space: We don't have a ton of space to store it," she said. "A lot of rooms in our facility are used for lots of different things, so to add a storage piece for food is difficult, especially when we think about fresh produce and how we don't have a commercial freezer, fridge or anything like to keep that food fresh."

Because WACC is attempting to serve many needs besides that of food insecurity, Tackett said cash donations allow the center to send the money where it's really needed. That money can be rerouted to buying gas for transporting food or taking people places, or it can pay for interns at the center, or for items needed for children's programming.

"We are really trying to focus on helping the physical self, the family as a unit and the well being of our clients," she said. "Those monetary donations help us fund all facets of that programming: salaries, buying things for our clients, transportation, (and) printing costs, too."

"We're trying to do a lot."

Lyndsay Jones is a reporter at WGLT. She joined the station in 2021. You can reach her at lljone3@ilstu.edu.