The holidays always seem to inspire extreme amounts of giving. Social media is flooded with stories of generosity and benevolence, opportunities to donate are everywhere, and every other building you enter is hosting a canned food drive.

As a child who grew up in extreme poverty, this season of giving always looked different to me.

I was the recipient, the angel on the tree, the kid who took the cans home from school instead of bringing them.

I remember every single time my youth group showed up at my door to give us a frozen turkey and a box of canned goods, and no matter how embarrassing it was, I was excited for the food. My single mother and I lived on food stamps all year long, which meant that our menu wasn’t exactly varied or exciting—string cheese was a delicacy.

As soon as my friends left to take a turkey to the next poor family, I dove into that box with a hunger that had little to do with my stomach. I sifted through the goods with excitement—would there be Rice-A-Roni this time? Maybe some macaroni? Dare I even hope for a can of—gasp—Spaghetti-Os?

What I usually found, what was mostly given to us as an act of charity, were expired cans of pie filling, dented cans of vegetable medleys, and cans with no labels. Seriously. No labels.

We tried to make the most of these items, even implementing “Surprise Side Friday” where you open a can with no label and surprise! that’s your meal. Pie filling didn’t do us much good without pie crusts or the expensive baking staples needed to make a pie from scratch, and with my single mom always working there really wasn’t time to make one. Dented cans got used first, in case they were at risk of going bad quicker. But the hardest items to deal with were the expired cans and the fruit cocktails with dust all over the top. These were proof that we weren’t being given to, we were being used as a landfill.

This wasn’t charity, this was a clean-out.

Over the years I’ve heard people say someone should be grateful for what they’re given from canned food drives, that people struggling so much financially shouldn’t be so picky, that at least the green beans were something more than what they had. And there’s some truth to that. But poverty is not an excuse to feed someone food you didn’t want or food that’s expired. Poverty does not mean families are worth less. Giving to the poor does not mean you get to treat them poorly.

Actual food banks are not allowed to distribute expired or label-less cans, and the amount of food they throw out because it was donated long after the “best by” date is staggering. Keep that in mind when you’re clearing out your pantry in preparation for helping the needy this holiday season. If you didn’t eat it in time, nobody will. That “donation” is just taking a detour to the dump.

Instead, when your daughter’s class is having a canned food competition or there’s a box at your bank filling up with nonperishable items for local families in need, invest in items that can really be useful. Vegetable medleys are cheap and easy to stock up on when you’re trying to bring more cans than the next class, but for a family in need something like chili might pack more protein punch. A jar of peanut butter can feed a family for days. Microwavable meals like mac and cheese cups or —gasp—Spaghetti-Os are perfect for children to make for themselves while their parents are at work. Flavored rice, skillet meals, applesauce . . . think beyond a single holiday meal and consider what you would want someone to hand you in a box if you were hungry.

Sure, these items cost a little more than cans of pie filling. Sure, it’s an expensive time of year and it’s easier to participate in the giving if you just grab some stuff from your own pantry. Sure, people in need are hungry . . . but that doesn’t make them dumpsters. If your motivation is to give and help, then donate items that can really be used, not that make a taller stack of cans. The 4-pack of tuna will cost more and look smaller than 10 cans of green beans, but it will be a very welcomed treat, will be much more diverse, and will offer way more protein than salt.

You’re not trying to fill boxes, you’re trying to fill bellies.

The saying goes that beggars can’t be choosers, but poor people aren’t begging for your expired cans; you’re offering them. Don’t give tasteless stuff this holiday season. Don’t give cheap stuff. Don’t give old stuff, damaged stuff, dusty stuff, discarded stuff. Don’t give to win a contest. Give to help. Give to make a difference. Give to feed a family for more than a day, to bring some relief to a single parent, to bring some ease to an elderly person living alone. Give to feed more, not to see more. And don’t give anything that would require anyone to give up their dignity in order to eat it.


Jennifer Vail

Jennifer is married to the very handsome man she's loved half her life, with whom she juggles 3 hilarious, quirky, sometimes-difficult-but-always-worth-the-work kids. She is passionate about people and 90's pop culture, can't go a week without TexMex, and maintains the controversial belief that Han shot first. She holds degrees in counseling and general ministries, writes at This Undeserved Life, and can often be found staying up too late but rarely found folding laundry.