10 Worst Things to Donate After a Disaster


Canned Food and Bottled Water

Columbia Red Cross
Members of the Colombian Red Cross prepare supply boxes for Haiti outside their headquarters in Bogota. GUILLERMO LEGARIA/AFP/Getty Images

Who can forget the plight of thousands of displaced New Orleans citizens after Hurricane Katrina flooded large sections of the city in 2005? The stranded residents were temporarily housed in the city's convention center, which lacked adequate food and water [source: Haygood]. For three desperate days, the world watched as one of the wealthiest countries in the world failed to provide basic resources for those in greatest need.

The botched response to Katrina reinforces the myth that food and water are the best things to donate after a disaster. While it's true that disaster relief agencies and food banks always need nonperishable food and bottled water, individual collections of food shipped to disaster sites are not the best way to provide those critical resources.

Remember that every box of donations has to be opened, inspected and sorted. Food requires much closer inspection that other donations, because cans could be expired or damaged, at which point they become a health risk to the survivors. Then the food needs to be organized by type, repackaged and distributed to the people who need it the most.

As with other types of disaster relief, food is something best left to the professionals. They have the infrastructure and the resources to distribute hot meals directly to the hardest hit areas. And they work with food banks that can supply inexpensive bulk items — both nonperishable and fresh — through established networks of local suppliers at low cost or free [source: Fessler].

Consequently, the best way to supply food is to donate nonperishable items to local food banks so they are well-stocked for emergencies, and to donate money to disaster relief organizations. Here's another reason that cash is preferred, particularly for overseas disasters: Not only do relief organizations save money on shipping, they can often purchase the food close to the disaster zone, which helps to revive the local economy of the hard-hit nation.