IFAN supports and represents hundreds of independent food aid providers operating across the UK including community kitchens, soup kitchens, social supermarkets and well over 500 independent food banks working in a variety of ways. Some use a referral system, some don’t, some distribute fresh food and produce, some only give out ambient food. Often, these days, our members are giving out shopping vouchers instead of or alongside food parcels to enable more choice and dignity for people having to use a food bank. Most of our members use surplus food in one form or another and are often signed up to the major food redistribution charity FareShare.
We were seeing a food insecurity crisis and an increasing need for food banks before the pandemic. But Covid-19 has seen the scale of emergency food aid provision grow to an extent unimaginable before March 2020. Although approaches like the use of shopping vouchers have been developed and food banks receiving financial donations rather than food donations has meant they can cater to people’s needs and choices more easily, there has also been an increasing reliance on surplus food and a growth in the reach of surplus food redistribution charities. Many of the proliferating food pantries, social supermarkets and community food retail projects use surplus food as their main source of supply. The work of FareShare and other food surplus redistribution charities has been much needed and appreciated by a spectrum of food aid providers.
But we know that emergency food provision whether in the form of a shopping voucher, bought or surplus food or discounted food at a social supermarket can’t stop hunger from happening in the first place. Any charitable food aid provision is effectively simply a sticking plaster on the problem of poverty that can only be properly addressed by systemic change.
For some time now a deep misunderstanding around the role of specifically surplus food in addressing or ending hunger and food poverty has been emerging. This started long before the pandemic and has been perpetuated in messaging by surplus food redistribution charities with wording like “fighting hunger”.
Although it’s commonly agreed by third sector organisations that an emergency food parcel, whether it’s made up of surplus food or not, cannot possibly address the root causes of food poverty, there is deep-rooted confusion amongst the wider public as to the role of surplus food in ending hunger. And marketing departments are taking full advantage of this in drawing in donations and backing from supermarkets.
In short, the food poverty and food surplus crises have been conflated in a way that is aiding and abetting the institutionalisation of charitable food aid. Although it may appear to be an obvious win-win solution to the food waste and food poverty problems to channel food surplus towards people unable to afford food - and a much cheaper approach for the Government to invest in than an adequate social security system - the growing use of surplus food is entrenching a two-tier system.
So, we’re really glad that the Plenty To Share campaign has been launched and there’s now a real opportunity to raise the critical issue of the fusion of these two huge problems and to call for the systemic changes that will address both food waste and food poverty separately. We hope many more organisations will join us in making these calls, especially food surplus redistribution charities.
The systemic changes that are needed to address food poverty and the poverty driving it are multiple but it’s very clear that the social security system needs to be rebuilt so that benefit payments match the cost of living, that there isn’t a 5-week wait for Universal Credit, that the 2-child limit and benefit cap are removed, and that the punitive sanction system is removed. It’s fundamental that No Recourse to Public Funds status is permanently suspended. It’s also critical that crisis payments are immediately and easily accessible at local authority level and that local, national and central governments prioritise a cash first response to food insecurity. And employers need to pay a Real Living Wage and provide job security and living hours.
These are the changes that will end food poverty, not the redistribution of surplus food, however much it’s needed in the here and now.
Find out more about the Plenty to Share campaign - www.thisisrubbish.org.uk