Comment: The failure of food charity


We need to slap a giant ‘out of date’ label on the current model of charitable food assistance, argues Dan Crossley of the Food Ethics Council

Foodservice businesses might be tempted to think it a case of job done if they are redistributing all of their surplus food to people in need. However, this is not the win-win-win scenario it might appear. In March, l joined over 50 individuals representing a range of academic institutions and not-for-profit organisations in signing a letter to The Guardian arguing that charitable food assistance risks institutionalising charity as a way of addressing hunger and providing governments with an excuse to ignore the systemic causes of household food insecurity.

Charitable food assistance – the provision of food to people in need by charities – has grown significantly in the UK in the last decade. This week, it was reported that the UK's biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, gave a record 1.6 million packs of food supplies in the past year representing a 19% annual increase.

Major food companies are involved in a range of programmes, whether it is Kellogg’s supporting breakfast club initiatives or Asda donating food and money to people in need via surplus redistribution charities.

Many foodservice companies have also bought into the food charity model. At first glance, the logic might seem sound. The argument is that some surplus food is inevitable, so why not feed it to people in need rather than throw it to landfill. However, this approach raises fundamental ethical questions – not least whether we can continue to ignore the root causes of poverty and suffering for the sake of short-term relief?

The problem arises when the model of surplus food being redistributed to people in need gets ramped up, normalised and entrenched - and that’s precisely what’s happening in the UK. The default corporate response is often to seek redistribution of ever more surplus food rather than question the inefficient business models that have food waste built into them, not to mention wasted resources, time, effort and money.

We should challenge the inevitability of surplus food. To pick just one example, if changes to on-pack promotions are one of the drivers of surplus food, why not challenge and change the promotions model, rather than unquestioningly passing that ‘out of date’ promotion (but not out of date food) on for redistribution? Food company directors and investors should be questioning company business models if there is permanently so much surplus food to give to charity.

It is vital to tackle the root causes, not just of food waste, but also of poverty. Too many people in the UK struggle to be able to afford to eat and throwing surplus food at them isn’t going to solve the problem. The fact that so many vital community projects have become reliant on free surplus food is not something to celebrate. Don’t get me wrong – my issue is not with the amazing people across the country that volunteer to redistribute surplus food. My unhappiness is instead first and foremost with national government for failing to provide a properly functioning safety net and to fulfil its obligations around a right to food for all. It’s shameful that the UK is in the position it is. Equally, I have issues with the centralised, industrial food system model that works for some, but not for all.

Food companies should take a longer-term ethical response, whether or not they continue to provide short-term emergency support to people in need. Crucially businesses should resist the temptation to ‘lock in’ infrastructure that entrenches surplus food redistribution. I believe food companies can only play a genuine, lasting role in tackling household food insecurity if they are paying and treating their own employees well.  

Despite some improvements with the introduction of the National Living Wage, low pay remains an issue in food and farming sectors. According to recent Food Foundation research, 83% of waiters, 62% of employees in food retail and 36% in agriculture and fishing are paid below a real living wage. I’d like to change the system so that within five years everyone working in food, farming and fishing is paid a real living wage. Of course, it’s not just about pay, it’s also about opportunities for progression, collective bargaining rights, security of employment and tackling inequality by capping executive salaries. Pay ratios in the food sector are typically significantly greater than the 8:1 benchmark (between highest and lowest staff salary) considered good practice by the WageMark Foundation.

What can you do as a foodservice business? Start by considering whether anyone in your own business or your supply chain are themselves struggling to be able to afford to eat (and eat well)? If the answer is “yes” or “I don’t know”, then you need to act. Consider what needs to change so that you can get to a position where you can confidently say your business is - at the very least - not contributing to making household food insecurity worse.

It’s easier to swim with the tide, rather than to swim against it. But food businesses have a responsibility to help turn that tide and to rethink how they can positively contribute to society and the environment. Together we can avoid further entrenching a two-tier food system – one for the ‘haves’ and one for the ‘have-nots’. Instead let’s learn to treat each other with dignity.

The Food Ethics Council is hosting a Business Forum dinner meeting – a safe space for business leaders in food and farming to come together – on the evening of 21st May (4.45-8.30pm) in London. We will explore how the food sector can help tackle household food insecurity – and how businesses might go beyond a ‘food charity’ approach. We don’t claim to have all the answers, but together we can start to turn the tide. We’d love more foodservice businesses to join us.

Let’s stop asking how we can throw more free food at the problem of poverty and instead ask how we can involve everyone – critically including people on low incomes – in shaping a food system that works for all.

Dan Crossley is Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. For further information on the Business Forum dinner, including how to attend, contact dan@foodethicscouncil.org

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