How to tell a good food pantry from bad
November 10, 2017 1:41 PM   Subscribe

A food pantry I've donated to several times makes me concerned. Should I be? Details within.

It's small, only open a total of 8 hours a month. According to their IRS 990 filing, they spend about US$7K on food, $12K on salaries, $4K on rent, postage, advertising, etc. for a total of $23K a year. But they're taking in twice that in donations annually, despite having $137K in the bank. That's 6x their annual expenses, where I thought 1-2x was a normal rule of thumb for a nonprofit. The board has a wife/husband couple on it, though none of them takes a salary.

The other worrisome thing is that aside from a one-time "emergency" use, you have to provide ID, proof of income, and proof of residency every year to qualify. That seems impossible for the neediest to meet. Not that the working poor don't need food assistance too, but don't they have plenty of money to help more people?

Basically, it doesn't seem like this charity needs my money, but is this normal for a small-town food bank?
posted by wnissen to Work & Money (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know if it's normal for the context, but I do know that that's a bad way to run a food pantry. However, if it's the only food resource in your area, whether by giving food directly or by giving financial resources to buy food, that should be a factor in your decision. Perhaps you can give them actual food instead of money? That would be more difficult to misappropriate, I think. It's good that you're thinking about this and looking into it.
posted by Verba Volant at 1:57 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Charity navigator is a site I use regularly to check where my moolah goes. They don't have a rating, which does not mean it is bad, just does not meet their criteria.

But from what you say, they are a Food pantry that it taking in 50K, spending about 12 K on salaries; but gives out only 7K in food? And they have a net assets of 137K? Just from those numbers and the fact that this is not rated by Charity navigator; find someplace else to donate money to. On top of that, they have requirements to get aid? My reaction to all this is: GTFO.

They are a food pantry and deliver less in aid than the money they give out in salaries. This is enough for me to stop giving to them. In Chicago (where I live) I give to the Greater Chicago Food Depository. Is there a similar Greater Cleveland Food Depository or something that serves your area? Give to them.
posted by indianbadger1 at 2:00 PM on November 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

Edited to add: There is a Greater Cleveland Food bank rated 4 star by Charity navigator. See if this suits your needs.
posted by indianbadger1 at 2:06 PM on November 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

I can't/won't speak to their budgeting and cash management issues, but I do want to note that ID and proof of residency/proof of income are commonly required for need-based assistance.

Some organizations with limited resources choose to target their work at a specific community, and others are limited to serving those of a certain income level. Annual recertification for entitlement programs is common, from both government and private agencies.

Most groups that require these types of verifications have systems in place to assist or accommodate people who don't have traditional items such as a driver's license or an apartment lease. Helping people gather the documents necessary to qualify for services is a common function of social service case workers.
posted by mccxxiii at 2:19 PM on November 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

There are also food banks that mostly serve other organizations -- for example, my church serves a meal for low-income seniors, and we get supercheap canned goods from Philabundance, a great local food pantry. That would fit with their only being open a few days per month, better than if they were providing fresh groceries to individuals.

Still, no advice on the other question marks.
posted by acm at 2:41 PM on November 10, 2017

Have a conversation about your concerns with someone who works at this pantry before you make any decisions. Very small nonprofit orgs can look weird on paper, and operating budgets are complicated (is there maybe a site lease that has a lump sum payment from time to time, or something else that can account for a seemingly oversized amount of money lying around?). You should have no trouble getting in touch with someone there with whom you can have a very frank discussion.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 3:18 PM on November 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

but gives out only 7K in food?

OP says they only spend 7K on food, not that they only give out that much. They could be getting significant amounts of food donated to them. It doesn't mean you shouldn't still be looking pretty hard at their operations but I know the food banks here get a lot of donated canned goods and such, and even after that can get better deals buying things in bulk.
posted by dilettante at 3:46 PM on November 10, 2017 [7 favorites]

I wonder if they are trying to save up for something? Perhaps a larger space or a better kitchen? It wouldn't hurt to ask. I realize that having that much money looks like they are hoarding it, but it would make sense that they would want to save when times are good so that they can continue to function when times are bad later on.
posted by Toddles at 4:57 PM on November 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Have you tried going in looking like a potential client? When my daughter and I were casting about for places to volunteer at a while back, I didn't consider anywhere without first going there during hours they were open to the public.

One place gave us eyerolls and acted like we were a nuisance, and in the way, because apparently we were not in exactly the right part of the office and we should have somehow known this, despite absolutely nothing being signposted. Staffers rushed along, avoiding us. Eventually I managed to get someone to stay still, and said we were there to ask after volunteer opportunities. There was an abrupt tone change and we were warmly welcomed and escorted to the right desk.

(Had that been a visit for groceries, with a kid in tow, I would have gone home and cried. I still can't get over that shithole and the bitches tasked with running it. A LOT of planet foodbank is make-work stuff for others -- when there are professional organisations, conferences, professional salaries, etc, and nobody is advocating to get the government to function properly and consequently end the need for food banks, you know there are some deep-seeded problems in the industry. Food bank associations lobby for more corporate sponsors and work on assembling galas; they don't lobby for better social policy. That's not why that type works in that tier of the poverty sector.)

Another had such over-the-top ID-etc-etc requirements for a pittance of non-perishables once a month that we took one look and said "hell no."

Eventually we found a place running itself along a "food centre" model. If you did not have ID you got food, but there was an advocacy office tasked with helping you get ID and so on (this was the only place we read about that had such a thing), and anything else you might need general social services help with. There was a soup, I mean, community kitchen upstairs, a place that was clean and actually pleasant to eat at, with a retired renowned chef directing the meals. A lot of meal ingredients came from the community garden out back.

When my kid and I showed up, deliberately not dressed to the nines, we were quickly, cheerfully greeted. "Hi! What can we do for you?"

We had no problem giving our time to that place, but still kind of hope the other one burns to the ground and ends up re-built with entirely different people running it. We've done some other volunteer work, too, and I cannot stress this strongly enough to people trying to gauge whether or not a cause is worth it: go pretend to be a potential client. If you are not welcomed and treated with dignity, it is a bloody make-work thing run on the backs of the poor and should be one-starred on Yelp to warn off other potential volunteers, and generally shamed and ignored into submission...

Sorry it's not a direct answer about the finances -- I'd go in and ask to discuss that, only after revealing myself as Not Actually a Client, after sussing out whether or not they are crappy and demeaning to people coming in for help.
posted by kmennie at 6:26 PM on November 10, 2017 [33 favorites]

The documentation requirement is very common for community food pantries. (Many will give out food to those who show up without documents once, but if they come back with nothing they _might_ be turned away.)

The “income requirement” does not mean clients have to prove they have income. They have to prove their income is less than a certain level, usual the metro poverty line plus 10-20%. “Proof” can be a paystub, bank statement, ATM deposit receipt, etc. It is casual.

Some of the food pantries that are open for “shopping” on a very limited basis serve needy communities that are often overlooked for food aid: the disabled poor, the aged poor, and (more recently) the immigrant poor. These groups may not be able or willing to travel for food aid, so the food gets delivered to them.

The last common phenomenon is that these neighborhood food pantries staff for a once or twice a month shop on non-perishables. They may also contribute labor, funding, and food to a larger and more centralized food distribution center that has non-food services available too.

Just some options. (I hope OP’s food pantry is one of the good ones. People that skim money from children’s breakfasts..........don’t get me started.)
posted by Kalatraz at 10:16 PM on November 10, 2017

In Chicago, there are official for pantry guidelines for qualification but none of the agency's actually check aside from service area (because population size makes things hard!)

It's more so if somebody who is rich decides they just will never pay for food for the rest of their life they can officially ban them or recoup costs. In practice this never happens.
posted by AlexiaSky at 11:23 PM on November 10, 2017

From a financial perspective: the assets in the bank may be held with a view toward long-term sustainability and smoothing cash flow throughout the year. They are probably too small to have this in a separate endowment fund, but it could be a cash cushion. Organizations with zero earned revenue opportunities are heavily reliant on donations, and donations fluctuate throughout the year. I think the rule of thumb with aid-based charities is that they receive 80% of their annual income in November and December - but of course, they have to serve public needs 100% of the year. That mens that's advisable to maintain some spending flexibility in a cash reserve. Do they also have a line of credit with their bank? That's another way you can "even out" the gaps between outgoing spending and incoming donations.

As noted above, they could also be saving for a capital project like a physical expansion. Normally that would be done in a separate fund with long-term interest rates though.

I also agree that they may receive a great deal of their resources in the form of in-kind donations - food itself. The $7K may be going only for supplemental or special foods (like holiday turkeys or fresh produce that's unlikely to be donated).

There's nothing in these financials themselves that indicates a problem. It would be possible for a very good food bank to have these financials. But as others have said, you need to know the reasons for the numbers. You can probably assume no one is using this as a money mill, since there's just not a lot of money. But you could also want to see donations put to more effective purposes than this organization is presently capable of. In short, there are possible good reasons for the numbers to look this way, but you need to learn more to know for sure.
posted by Miko at 7:51 AM on November 11, 2017

This story indicates they relocated this summer, which could have been a reason to build the cash cushion.

It also confirms that all food pantries in the county are required to recertify their recipients with documentation annually.

This article talks about how many families and individuals they serve and also mentions that as they've expanded they added freezers and refrigerators, which likely will be shown under program expenses (if it isn't already).

On reviewing their 990, also, I don't think the $7K refers to food. It's "program expenses" and can include grants, purchases, office supplies, etc. It looks like they get a lot of direct donations of food in kind and also receive food via Second Harvest.
posted by Miko at 8:10 AM on November 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

I used to work at a food pantry/soup kitchen. I will say I didn't have an intimate knowledge of the financials, but I wanted to comment on the people saying to donate food instead of money.

We threw away TONS of our donated food. I don't know how common this is, but it was hard for me to see and do. A lot of the reasoning was also based on the director's personal preferences--if she didn't like a particular food, she wouldn't serve it. She also made sure we only threw away food when the volunteers weren't around. Again, this is something that really bothered me but others didn't seem as concerned about it.

We required ID for the food pantry because people could only come once a month. I will say we didn't always enforce that strictly, and I had been instructed to accept expired IDs or IDs where it was obvious it was a totally different person. There were also resources to help low income people get IDs so I would direct people to them as well.
posted by girlmightlive at 9:23 AM on November 11, 2017

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