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Where your gift cards donated to food banks go

Ryan Hauck a worker at the North York Food Bank sorts through a box of items. (Photo by Carlos Osorio/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

When Loblaw Companies Ltd. announced that they would be giving $25 gift cards to Canadians as a goodwill measure following a 14-year price fixing scandal, thousands jumped at the opportunity to collect.

Many have discussed using their gift cards for a charitable cause, including personal finance guru Gail Vaz-Oxlade.

The gesture is certainly in the spirit of the season, and any time you can donate to a food bank, it’s a welcome gift. But charitable souls should know that donating a gift card to a food bank isn’t the same as making a cash donation.

“First of all, we will gratefully take [the gift cards],” said Gail Nyberg, Executive Director of Daily Bread Food Bank in Toronto. “But people need to understand they are for use are retail by individuals.”

Canadian food banks like Daily Bread can generally get wholesale prices for goods, which means they can stretch a dollar further. When they receive a $1 cash donation, they can often buy $3 or $5 worth of food for that money, compared to what the average consumer would pay at retail.

With gift cards, it’s largely the same as when food is donated.

“What I’m afraid of is we may end up with thousands of dollars of [gift cards], and they don’t work quite the same way that cash does,” said Nyberg.

“The bottom line is, to operate a food bank like we do with 170 member agencies, we do need to operate in cash… if someone decided to give us gift cards instead of financial donations, I can’t fill a gas tank, I can’t pay a driver with gift cards.”

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a use for the gift cards at the food bank.

“Say someone arrived at the food bank and was in need of formula, but we were out,” said Nyberg. “We would give them a gift card so they could buy it themselves.”

Second Harvest, which is a food rescue not a food bank, would also not be able to turn those gift cards into food.

However Lori Nikkel, Director of Programs and Partnershipst, says they wouldn’t turn them down.

“We’re happy to have people donate the cards to us, but we wouldn’t be able to use them [for buying food],” said Nikkel. She explains that when gift cards are donated, they’re used for raffles, which raise much needed funds to help their operation running.

Nyberg, who says she anticipated a “firestorm” the second people started discussing donating their gift cards, says that enough people were to send them their Loblaw gift cards, there is the potential for a deal to be struck with the company. If Loblaw were to offer Daily Bread and other food banks a deal on purchasing using the gift cards, they may be able to go further.

“Trust me, if it comes through we do have thousands of gift cards, my first call will be to Loblaws,” said Nyberg.

Until that happens, there are other organizations that can make more direct use of the gift cards. Homeless shelters and centres for at-risk women and youth can often use grocery gift cards to keep shelves stocked, or distribute to residents as needed. Yonge Street Mission in Toronto, for example, asks specifically for grocery gift card donations.

When deciding where to donate the gift card, it is recommended you contact your organization of choice first to see if it’s something that they need. Daily Bread Food Bank also recommends mailing them instead of leaving them in a donation bin, to prevent theft.

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