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What We Learned About Food Distribution

As a team, we’ve spent the past few months digging into hunger alleviation nonprofits — food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens — to understand their impact. We have a few takeaways. Most importantly, food distribution is a good bang for your buck. Of the 305 nonprofits we analyzed, a massive 265 provide a meal to a person in need at less than 75 percent of the price of a regular meal in their community, thus earning them 5 stars.

A brief recap of our process. We set out to estimate how many dollars it took food banks, food pantries and soup kitchens in the United States to deliver a meal. We analyzed 573 nonprofits and found enough data to proceed with 305 organizations. For each nonprofit, we calculated impact by dividing the number of meals provided against the total costs to provide those meals. Then, we compared the impact estimate (for example, $1 to provide a meal) to the average price of a meal in the county, according to Feeding America. If the nonprofit’s cost to provide a meal was about the cost of a bought meal, it earned 4 stars. If it was substantially more cost-effective, it earned 5 stars.

Based on data published by the nonprofits, nonprofits earned the following star ratings:

Rating

Criteria

Number of nonprofits

5 stars

Program’s cost to deliver a meal is less than 75% of the local cost.

265

4 stars

Program’s cost to deliver a meal is between 125% and 75% of the cost of a local meal.

21

3 stars

Program’s cost to deliver a meal is greater than 125% of the cost of a local meal.

19

2 stars

Nonprofit does not publish impact information

0*

1 star

Nonprofit has potential governance or financial health issues

1

* We are temporarily withholding 2-star ratings to give nonprofits an opportunity to publish data

What we learned along the way

1. The nonprofit sector is one of the biggest players in feeding the hungry.

We analyzed 306 food banks, food pantries, and soup kitchens. Collectively, over the course of a year, they spent $9 billion delivering over 5 billion meals.

2. Meal distribution involves many players

Delivering meals seems simple. But getting a meal to a person in need is a surprisingly complex process. Soup kitchens serve meals directly to beneficiaries. Food pantries provide groceries. Both can source food themselves by purchasing it or receiving donations, or by getting it from their local food banks. The food banks, in turn, receive massive donations of food, from businesses, the public, and the government. And food banks also trade with other food banks around the country.

3. Soup kitchens, food pantries, and food banks are some of the best at reporting impact… but they could be doing more.

In our experience, nonprofits often aim for transparency but seldom share enough information to fully calculate their impact. Food distribution is one exception — hundreds of nonprofits share the number of meals they deliver and the costs to deliver them. But they could be doing more. We found hundreds of nonprofits that weren’t reporting meals, unfortunately making an impact estimate impossible. [If you’re one of these nonprofits, we’re here to help] We also found almost no information about the nutritional content of meals or other benefits to people served.

What we still need to learn

1. What if we did have nutrition information?

In a perfect world, we would know whether the meals being served are healthy and well-balanced, but the reality is we just don’t have that data. Are we missing an important part of the picture by assuming all food distributed is equally nutritious? 

2. What’s the relationship between meals provided and disposable income?

For a given nonprofit, some percentage of the beneficiaries served would have otherwise just skipped that meal. For them, “hunger averted” is the most appropriate outcome of interest. However, for the same nonprofit, some beneficiaries would not have forgone that meal; rather, they would have dipped into savings, taken additional work hours, or spent less on something else in order to get a meal. For these people, savings  — and whatever they can buy with savings (e.g., clothes, utilities, transportation) — is the most relevant outcome of the meal they received. While this could be an important outcome for food distribution nonprofits, we stick with meals as our metric of analysis because we just don’t know what proportion of beneficiaries are avoiding hunger vs. boosting savings.