Food Bank Empiricism

Despite writing (and re-writing) an article on mobile soup kitchen volunteers and the fact that I should know something about food banks, I remain unclear on the actual demand for food bank services. Does it rise and fall during certain times of the year?

According to a historical index of google searches, it does:



November. People search for “food bank” at the end of November. Presumably this is due to Thanksgiving and Christmas being “a time for giving.” Charity is more at the forefront for whatever reason, and I assume people are looking for ways to give…in November.

The real question, of course, is this what drives the trend we see?

If we took it from this article here:

The reason is due to food stamp cuts. I don’t doubt this demand-side influence for the current spike in food bank interest, but I doubt it has much, if anything, to do with the cyclical story we see in the graph above–food stamps aren’t an annual cut, thankfully. I suspect a clue is given in the above-linked article:

“As many gorge on holiday feasts, food banks report an increased demand among the poor”

There’s definitely a guilt appeal in this headline. Suggesting that you get to eat and get fat, but what about those who can’t? So, perhaps, in this time of gluttony, we see more appeals for altruism. Perhaps it’s a sort of karmic balancing act.

It is interesting to thing what came first: is it the turkey (hehe) or the egg? Does news media drive a trend of searching for food banks (the largest chunk of charity-focused media is published around now)? Does the inclination to search for charity opportunities at this time of the year lead to articles? More likely, I’d presume them to be part of the same phenomenon, a self-reinforcing cultural predilection toward charity around thanksgiving and solstice holidays.

But still, I know nothing of the demand side–I assume people are needy year-round. This year notwithstanding, what is the cycle of demand for food charity needs? Are people less likely to be employed in the winter? I can see the potential for seasonal workers to struggle, but I wonder if the magnitude is as great as the supply-side interest. For other charity items–such as winter clothes–the cyclical interest makes more sense. At the same time, I wonder if giving warm clothing is popular because people need warm clothing, or if it is popular because this is the time of the year to give? Were “giving time” in mid-July, perhaps we’d see an uptick in seersucker shorts donations.

The cycle above seems to suggest that either people, in mass,  are only made to be conscious of hunger needs at certain times of the year, or, alternatively, people that search for food charity on google have their finger on the pulse of need. I doubt the latter.

Perhaps a most interesting takeaway from all this can be seen when we return to the matter of food stamps and food banks. Though one is a government service and one is a privately provided good, the latter has been legitimized as an appropriate supplement to the former. In other words, emergency food (as it was originally called) is a taken for granted, institutionalized, stop-gap measure to provide for the needy. Whereas before there may have been some semblance of a welfare state, now it’s privately provided welfare.

Secondarily, how interesting is it that we conceive of need as food. Food isn’t hard to come by in the US. Considering the amount that is thrown away by most Americans that some are hungry doesn’t appear to be a lack of actual edible materials. Instead, it’s a distribution problem, moreover, its a lack of medium of exchange for food, and most specifically, its the inability of some people to secure that means of exchange on a regular basis. So, we cut out all the disease and cut straight to the symptom. Both SNAP and food banks care that you’re hungry, not why your hungry. The definition of a stop-gap measure, or continuing with the analogy: a band-aid.

The article has a point. Perhaps in this time of gluttony, there is a need for charity. But also in less gluttonous times, there is a need for charity. But perhaps the idea of charity needs to be redefined: why food? Why private?

I’d love to interview the guy who supports cutting food stamps and makes a weekend out of doling out soup and cheer at the local soup kitchen.


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