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Beyond Surplus Food Redistribution

By Martin Bowman, Plenty to Share

Martin Bowman issues a rallying call to join the Plenty to Share movement for systemic solutions to food waste and poverty. Join their webinar on 9th June, Sabine Goodwin and Dee Woods from IFAN will be speaking, and sign up to the Plenty to Share monthly newsletter for updates and opportunities to get involved.

In The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck recorded tragic scenes of food waste occurring alongside the hunger of Great Depression-era America: "The works of the roots of the vines, of the trees, must be destroyed to keep up the price […] A million people hungry, needing the fruit- and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains. And the smell of rot fills the country.”

The gut injustice of food being wasted alongside poverty is visceral. I was working in a book shop 12 years ago, when I stumbled across a copy of Tristram Stuart’s book Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Waste Scandal, which contained an image probably not too dissimilar to Steinbeck’s scene, of a whole field of millions of oranges rotting. I saw this image in the wake of our own economic crash of 2008, when austerity policies were beginning to plunge people into poverty across the UK. Seeing that field of rotting oranges made me feel deep injustice, and I’ve dedicated the last 12 years of my life to fighting food waste as a result. Many others have done the same.

The seemingly obvious solution to this injustice is to give surplus food to people in need. I threw myself into this world for nearly a decade, setting up a collective cooking in a homeless hostel using surplus food from local bakeries and groceries for 5 years, and then helping Feedback set up its Gleaning Network, which takes volunteers to farms to harvest the leftover crops and distributes them to people in poverty via charities like FareShare. During this time, there’s been an explosion of organisations who in one form or another redistribute surplus food to feed people unable to afford food themselves.

But the sad truth, which many people in the sector acknowledge, is that food banks shouldn’t have to exist in the sixth richest country in the world, and can only provide a short-term sticking plaster. As poverty and hunger has grown in the UK, compounded by the pandemic, so too food bank use has skyrocketed. Charities and volunteers are at breaking point. But they shouldn’t have to pick up the pieces of a broken system – we need a Real Living Wage in place, strong social safety nets and a more equal society to ensure nobody falls through the cracks.

And the flip side of this is that food shouldn’t be wasted in the first place either. Over the past decade I’ve been campaigning on food waste, the Government have abdicated responsibility for the problem by leaving action to voluntary measures by businesses. The result has been that, despite promises, almost all food businesses continue to keep their food waste secret (less than 10% of major food businesses publicly report, only 60), and we have seen reduction in food waste by less than 1% year in food businesses overall. Food charities redistribute a tiny fraction of the millions of tonnes of food wasted every year by businesses. (1)

Redistributing surplus food can ultimately only provide a short-term fix for both the food waste and food poverty problems. That’s why This Is Rubbish have set up the Plenty to Share campaign, to call for systemic solutions which tackle food waste and poverty at the root. Our Food Abundance and Equality Declaration (launched in the Big Issue) sets out our main principles, supported by groups ranging from IFAN to Greenpeace and Feeding Britain, alongside many organisations at the forefront of surplus food redistribution such as FoodCycle, the Real Junk Food Project and Hubbub. We want to see food waste and poverty designed out of the system in the first place – through policies like winning a Real Living Wage, creating a fairer tax system, creating strong social safety nets, and introducing food waste regulation to make sure businesses publish their food waste figures and speed up reduction efforts. There are so many inspiring campaigns and movements for systemic solutions, like the Right to Food campaign – but they need help to succeed. We want to create a network that helps people (particularly those involved in food aid and redistribution) to get involved in these campaign movements, and builds solidarity, so that together we can win fundamental change.

Why should food aid and food redistribution groups get involved with this struggle? Shouldn’t we stick to delivering immediate on-the-ground support? The problem is that by redistributing food surplus, we can easily be co-opted into a narrative – we can be showcased as a valid response to food waste and poverty, by the media and policymakers. If we do not collectively offer a strong counter-narrative that calls for systemic solutions, we can end up passively becoming agents of this narrative. Even if we do not intend to, we can too easily “sleepwalk” into becoming the long-term institutionalised response. The Government’s “Big Society” narrative of the early 2010s was that charities would pick up the slack as the state abandoned its own responsibility, by cutting support to society’s most vulnerable. I remember the day I received a “Big Society” award in the post – I felt angry and powerless (and I still don’t know how I was nominated). Between 2010 and 2018, a total of £34 billion was cut from the welfare state, plunging millions into poverty.

Against this backdrop, food redistribution began to gain Government support. Robin Aitken, co-founder of the Felix Project, wrote an article for the Daily Mail titled ‘Don’t let the left ruin our crusade’ arguing that the expansion of food banks was a heart-warming success, and to involve the state in solving poverty was lefty nonsense. (2) The Evening Standard (at the time edited by George Osborne, who oversaw so many of the cuts which had driven people to rely on food aid) began to heavily push the expansion of surplus food redistribution. Following pressure from FareShare, the government launched a £15 million fund to expand surplus food redistribution (spread over several years). In itself, it would be easy to see this as a cause for celebration, which would save charities money. But this has to be seen in a wider context of £34 billion in cuts to the welfare state, which saw millions plunged into poverty and charities strained to breaking point in their effort to help. £15 million is a drop in the ocean. Not only that, between 2010-18 the Government also slashed WRAP’s funding by over £46 million a year to a fifth of its previous level, reducing money for food waste prevention. (3) With state funding to stop hunger and food waste in decline, it appears that charities are being used as a “moral release valve for the State”, as former UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Olivier De Schutter once said. Where might this lead?

1930s America offers a clue. Seeing enormous agricultural surpluses occurring alongside mass hunger, “both the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations responded to this embarrassing contradiction with programmes to transfer surplus farm products to people in need” (4), donating produce to schools and the unemployed and introducing a food stamp system which allowed poor people to obtain surplus produce through grocery stores. Thus began an entrenched system which dealt with food surpluses not by preventing them but by redistributing them, and dealt with poverty not by giving people enough money to live on, but by referring them to food charities. Anti-poverty campaigners allied with politicians in Congress “who feared the poor would spend cash unwisely and therefore preferred to distribute assistance in kind”. (5) And the US agricultural lobby used the donated food as political leverage to gain support in the cities (which were increasingly reliant on food redistribution) for continued agricultural subsidies (which ironically perpetuated the agricultural surpluses). This paradoxical system became locked in for decades, and still shapes the US’s inadequate social safety nets alongside massive food aid institutions like Feeding America today.

In modern Britain, we have the responsibility to stop history repeating itself. Together, we can win systemic solutions to food waste and poverty. We can win a Real Living Wage,  minimum income guarantee, a Right to Food, and create a society where wealth is shared more equally through a fairer tax system. We can design food waste out of the system in the first place by regulating businesses, and properly funding a just transition to a green society safe from climate change. But we have to fight for it. The Plenty to Share movement is trying to create a space to help food aid and surplus redistribution organisations show solidarity with and organise for systemic solutions to both food waste and poverty. Everyone is welcome. We’d love you to join us.

1 Somewhere between 3.78 and 6.38 million tonnes of food waste occurs in the UK primary production, manufacturing, retail and hospitality and food service sectors (of which about two thirds is edible). Just 0.04 million tonnes of surplus food is redistributed to charities. Even with massive expansion, charities would barely scratch the surface, and much would be logistically challenging to access. Even if some surplus food was still redistributed, could it be redistributed through guaranteed universal services like free school meals via public procurement?

2 This is not to imply that everyone at the Felix Project believes similarly – indeed, we are hopeful that the Felix Project’s volunteers and staff (or even the organisation as a whole) will reject Aitken’s view and join our movement!

3 Despite WRAP’s faults (mainly, their dedication to date to voluntary business agreements rather than regulation), they are the main body entrusted by the government to prevent food waste – so the severity of cuts to their funding, which resulted in WRAP having to re-found themselves as a charity, is an indication of the government’s priorities.

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