Ailts: “Food for Fines” could help you give back while also lessening your debt

With this program, students could learn the importance of giving back while also minimizing their own debt.

Ellen Ailts

What if you could spread some holiday cheer and pay off your library fines or parking tickets at the same time? On some campuses and in cities across the country, it’s possible to indulge in the holiday spirit of giving by donating to food shelters, while also lessening your debt to the city or university through Food for Fines. Food for Fines is a program that allows people to pay off part or all of their late fees, whether they be because of a parking ticket or an overdue library book, by donating food to be distributed to local food banks. The program attaches a monetary credit, usually between $1-3, to each item of food donated, which goes toward paying off your debts. 

There have been many instances of successful Food for Fines programs, many of which began on university campuses. For example, at New Mexico State University, students are able to pay their way out of parking tickets by donating jars of peanut butter; if a student donates at least 80 ounces of peanut butter, around a $10 donation, they can negate their ticket (a good deal, since the ticket usually totals around $35). Since 2009, the University of Alaska-Anchorage has had a similar program, asking for peanut butter and jelly to pay parking tickets; Grand Valley State University created four tiers of goods eligible for its Food4Fines program.  Forgiving students for expensive late fees by creating a program that replenishes local food banks is an unequivocal win-win.  

In addition to helping those with late fees and those in need of meals, the program also helps cities or colleges in actually collecting fine money. Waiving late fees is sometimes enough motivation for people to actually pay off the rest of the fine, as some cities have seen in implementing the program.

The holiday season is the perfect time to launch and publicize this program. People are already in the spirit of giving, and the program allows people to pay off fines in a way that ensures their money is going to good use. Knowing you’re helping those in need fosters community camaraderie, and provides more meals to those who need them. In the 2014 holiday season, the program in Lexington, Kentucky took in more than 6,000 cans of donated food; in 2016, Boulder, Colorado’s program brought in over 1,400 pounds of food and waived $7,205 worth of parking citations; in 2015, Albany, New York took in a ton-and-a-half of food through the program, enough for 5,000 meals.  Implementing this initiative city-wide would be the ultimate goal, but by starting it on a smaller scale here on campus, we could prove its viability and its potential to help those in need. 

By rousing this spirit of giving in people, we could see an increase in charitable giving throughout the holiday season, even by reminding people that food banks are always in need of donations, whether that be food or monetary donations. It’s important to keep in mind that monetary donations feed more hungry people than individual food donations do because charities that fight hunger are able to buy wholesale or in bulk.  Simply getting people in the spirit of giving could be substantial and self-perpetuating — but we have to start by making people feel good about helping their neighbors in a meaningful way by bringing more attention to the issue of food insecurity in our community.