Can The Can

Offices, classrooms and civic groups around the country are gearing up for their annual canned food drives. From now until the new year people will pile prepackaged, non-perishable food items in cardboard boxes and promptly forget about hunger and homelessness for the rest of the year.

Obviously, this is a generalization, and likely a bit unfair. But as the season of the can drive bears down on us, I have to wonder – is it time to can the can?

We need a new kind of food drive. One that helps build a sustainable infrastructure for healthy local food for everyone. One that is premised on valuing the land and the people in our community. One that is rooted in justice, not charity.

Can drives remind me a bit of the days after 9/11 when people asked what they could do to help heal our country, and George Bush told them to go shopping. Trying to address hunger by buying cheap food, often times heavily processed and full of preservatives (hence non-perishable), seems like a misguided solution that creates new kinds of problems. The cans, and the transportation it took to get them on store shelves as well as from boxes to shelters, amount to significant waste. And, in most cases the money spent on those non-perishables doesn’t stay in the local economy. It’s a consumer solution for a structural problem.

So what would a different kind of food drive look like? Chances are, it would look different for different people, which would be one of its strengths. Instead of the uniformity of collecting cans, the food drive could encompass a range of actions that leverages communities’ diverse strengths, and meets a diverse set of needs. It would engage people based on their unique interests, passions, and availability. And, it would require engagement in every season, not just around the holidays.

Some actions might include:

There are innumerable examples. The key is that they are rooted in a community’s concrete needs and designed to give people access to healthy local foods and foster people’s capacity to sustain themselves. This new kind of food drive should be a drive to end hunger, not just satiate it.

That said, one piece of this effort will no doubt also include short term steps to provide food to those in need. None of this is meant to discount the vital work shelters are doing in our communities everyday. With the state of the economy and unemployment, the need to get food in the hands of people has never been so great. When you stock up for the office food drive, think about what you are buying. As best as possible, seek out high quality, healthy foods, and support local farmers and producers.

But don’t let it end there. Don’t dump you cans and never look back. For every can you donate this year, identify one longer term action you can take throughout the rest of the year to fight the causes of hunger in your community. Let this year’s food drive be the start of something, not the end.

Make your food drive a food fight. A fight for a healthy, just and sustainable future.

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