Food waste breakthrough is just the beginning

2016 was the year redistribution went mainstream. But it’s only a sticking-plaster solution to the problem of poverty. By Nick Hughes.

The year 2016 felt like a breakthrough moment for food waste redistribution. Greater public awareness of food waste along with businesses’ own waste reduction commitments and improvements in the operational capabilities of redistribution charities combined to create the conditions needed to ensure more surplus food ended up going to those in need rather than in the bin.

Charities such as FareShare and the Trussell Trust have seen donations soar as big businesses, including most of the leading supermarkets, have come on board. Media campaigns from the likes of the London Evening Standard and the Grocer have helped, while the emergence of food waste apps such as OLIO, which connect local people with businesses that have surplus food available have removed some of the barriers to redistribution.

All the signs suggest that redistribution of food waste will only increase in the years ahead. Signatories to WRAP’s Courtauld Commitment 2025 are aiming to double the amount of surplus food they send for redistribution and ensure that where food surpluses cannot be avoided, redistribution is the first option considered.

On the face of it this is positive news. No one can reasonably object to perfectly good food being removed from the waste stream to feed people in need of sustenance. As Eleanor Morris, a programme area manager at WRAP, explains: “Where surplus food cannot be prevented, redistribution to people is the best option in terms of the food waste hierarchy,” since less organic material needs to be dealt with as waste.

But is redistribution the two-in-one solution to food waste and hunger that proponents would like it to be?

A new research paper from the Food Research Collaboration argues not. It goes further and concludes that a large-scale system of food donation could actually have negative health and social consequences for the groups of citizens that it is intended to help.

“While in the short term the redistribution of food waste to emergency food aid providers may provide immediate relief, there is no evidence to show that it addresses food insecurity,” says Professor Martin Caraher of City University, London, who co-authored the paper along with Dr Sinéad Furey of Ulster University.

The authors pull no punches in calling on the government to consider the “impracticality, morality and distraction” of redistributing surplus food and instead address the structural root causes of poverty.

Redistribution holds great appeal for both governments and businesses. Governments see a reduction in the number of people going hungry without the need for direct intervention and changes to economic or social policy, while businesses can bask in the glow of being seen as good corporate citizens while at the same time saving money on waste disposal.

Redistribution as a means of dealing with food poverty has so much currency at the moment that parliamentary discussions are taking place about whether corporate donations of surplus food could be made mandatory after similar moves in France and Italy – a policy supported in the Feeding Britain report from the all-party parliamentary group on hunger and food poverty.

Yet Caraher and Furey argue that legislation requiring retailers to give away surplus food is a short-term sticking plaster and cannot address systemic issues with hunger, citizens’ social rights to food or their nutritional needs.

They note, for instance, that the supply of food from supermarkets and other outlets is unpredictable and beneficiaries would be determined by the individual interests of charities. The problems of food waste and food insecurity, they add, must be treated as separate issues by politicians and the media, with systematic solutions developed for each problem. For food waste these could include disincentives to the production of waste, such as landfill taxes and not offering tax rebates on donated food.

Food waste prevention will continue to be challenging for businesses along the supply chain as long as availability remains a key performance indicator. But there are lots of examples of good practice that, once embedded in operating models, have the potential to significantly reduce waste.

These include giving producers greater certainty in contracts; relaxing cosmetic standards for fresh produce; planning menus more effectively; improving demand forecasting; and finding an alternative to the unhelpful best-before date that the AG Parfett chairman, Steve Parfett, recently described as “a device used by manufacturers to ‘force’ people to throw away perfectly good produce”.

The good news for foodservice operators is that the direction of travel regarding food waste prevention is positive. WRAP’s final Hospitality and Food Service Agreement report, published in January, revealed that businesses comfortably exceeded the 5% target for a reduction in food and packaging waste, the equivalent to throwing away 48m fewer meals.

Redistribution has played its part, with donations among HaFSA signatories doubling to 760 tonnes in the final year. Yet it’s also the case that foodservice businesses have been a little slower than retailers to seek opportunities to link up with charities. Logistical challenges are often cited as a reason for inaction, while TUCO’s food waste report, produced in association with Footprint Intelligence last year, identified fear of liability should recipients of surplus food fall ill as another barrier to redistribution.

All these issues can be overcome and there are more and more examples of good practice happening within the sector. KFC, for one, is in the process of scaling up a donation scheme for its surplus chicken after pressure by the chef and campaigner Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.

The evidence, however, suggests that redistribution in itself is not a solution to the structural challenges of food waste and food poverty, but one of a number of actions that can mitigate the effect of both in the short term. “Redistribution is certainly one of many actions that can be taken to prevent perfectly good food becoming waste, but it needs to be part of a much wider approach across the entire food chain, as is the case under the Courtauld Commitment 2025,” says Morris.

Businesses engaged in food donation schemes should give themselves a pat on the back. But for all its immediate benefits, the mainstreaming of redistribution is not a case of “job done” on food waste and hunger.

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