The spirit of giving is strong this time of year, so those cardboard boxes appear all over the place, at work, in stores, at school and at church, asking for donations of food. But do those canned goods do any good? The answer is – sort of.

For the food pantries that work every day to feed hungry Americans, almost any gift is welcome, and received as a heartening sign of support. And there’s something to say about the message sent and lessons learned when a group of people comes together to help strangers.

But in a “bang-for-the-buck” analysis, food drives fall short. There is, however, a better way – give cash instead.

Why? Food relief organizations buy food by the truckload at wholesale prices. In addition, they receive the tax breaks available to charitable groups. As a result, they can make your cash go further than a box full of canned vegetables and pasta. And not just a little further – a lot further.

The Center for High Impact Philanthropy estimates that food banks generally pay 10 cents per pound for the food the public purchases at $2 per pound.

Feeding America, a nationwide network of more than 200 food banks, says that the average drive takes in about 700 pounds of food, enough for roughly 583 meals. On the other hand, $700 donated directly to the food bank can be turned into 2,100 meals.

In Maine, Good Shepherd Food Bank, which served more than 178,000 people statewide in 2017, says a gift of $100 can provide 400 meals.

The money does more than multiply the amount of food – it also helps food banks be more flexible. A can of donated corn can only be corn, but cash can be turned into whatever the food bank needs, something that depends on what they have in stock and the particular needs of their clients. If a food bank serves a lot of people with health problems, as is usually the case, food high in sodium or sugar won’t do them much good.

That means, at the very least, organizers of food drives should coordinate with their local food bank to see what is needed. They’ll be happy to provide a list.

But while they may not say so out of politeness – and genuine gratitude – they’d be happier if you raise money and write a check.

That’s not to say that food drives don’t have a place. They are a wonderful way to teach children the importance of giving and thinking of others – bringing in a can of food or two drives that message home in a way that a check just can’t.

And for folks with little cash on hand, donating something out of their own pantry is a way to contribute, and to honor the Christmas spirit.

But if the ultimate goal is to help as many struggling neighbors as possible, we should put away the cardboard boxes and ask for cash instead, to be given to an organization that is going to use it the right way – and not just during the holidays, but year-round as well. Feeding America and Good Shepherd Food Bank both fit that bill, and get high ranks from watchdogs as a result.

Hunger is an entrenched problem, even for working Americans. Thankfully, there are a lot of people who want to help. We should make sure that help goes as far as it can.

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