Redistribution is no solution to food waste and poverty

The year 2016 felt like a breakthrough period 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 Trussel Trust have seen donations soar as major businesses, including most of the major supermarkets and a number of foodservice operators, 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.

This is unquestionably good news. No one can reasonably object to perfectly good food being removed from the waste stream to feed people in need of sustenance. As a short term fix to food insecurity donating surplus food to charity is a pragmatic choice.

What redistribution is not is a long-term answer to the dual issues of food waste and food poverty. Indeed, there is a risk that the success of food waste redistribution creates its own challenges in that it becomes a systemic, institutionalised answer to these problems to the extent that businesses and policy makers stop looking for other more sustainable solutions.

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 whilst at the same time saving money on food waste disposal.

But for all the good redistribution does, it does not solve the problem that over a million UK citizens do not have adequate means to feed themselves in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Nor does it provide a solution to the fact that the current system creates vast volumes of surplus food that has no market value.

In an ideal world, where the vast majority of UK citizens have the financial means to feed themselves without relying on handouts, there would be relatively low demand for surplus food. Under this scenario, if all the industry’s eggs have already been placed in the redistribution basket the balance of over-supply of food versus under-demand would become even harder to redress.

It’s for this reason as much as any other that businesses should not fixate on growing their redistribution networks at the expense of actions to address the structural issues that result in around 30% of the food produced globally going to waste.

Food waste prevention will remain challenging all the while availability remains a key performance indicator for food sellers, 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 AG Parfett chairman, Steve Parfett, recently described as “a device used by manufacturers to ‘force’ people to throw away perfectly good produce”.

Businesses engaged in food donation schemes should give themselves a pat on the back. But in no way is the recent mainstreaming of redistribution a case of ‘job done’ on food waste and poverty.

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