Emeritus Professor Pat Caplan, Goldsmiths, University of London
Updated: May 11
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), corporate donors and food banking in the UK.
There has been a rise in food poverty in the UK largely due to austerity policies and a parallel rise of organisations which seek to alleviate this situation: food banks, soup kitchens, breakfast and lunch clubs, affordable cafes and community meals, community food stores and vegetable gardens. At the same time, there has also been an increase in the importance for business of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies. In the case of the food industry, the last few years have seen increasing amounts of food deemed surplus to requirements being donated by wholesalers and retailers to charities, either through multi-lateral or bilateral arrangements. To some extent, the food industry is responding to pressure from consumers to cut waste but also to the increasing social unacceptability on environmental grounds of the use of landfill to dispose of food (and other) waste.
In his recent book Big Hunger, Andrew Fisher (2017) argues that in the USA with its much longer history of food aid organisations, much of the food aid given via food banks and pantries to those suffering from food poverty is inextricably bound up with the food industry: Big Food. During several decades of their existence, food banks have grown in size, number and scale and although they have alleviated hunger, their solutions are short-term and do not address the fundamental reasons why people find themselves food poor. Fisher argues that one reason why some of them are not activist organisations, advocating necessary social changes which might make a difference to those living in poverty, is the fact that many of their boards of trustees contain people from Big Food. Some similar points are made by Graham Riches his recent book Food Bank Nations (2016).
What then of the situation in the UK? I this short piece, I look at several recent developments and some connections between them, based on my research on food poverty in north London and west Wales. Here, as in other parts of the country, increasing numbers of people suffer from food poverty as a result of unemployment, low wages and precarious employment, as well as cuts in the benefit system; all of this part of the austerity programme adopted by the government in the name of ‘balancing the books’. However, in the course of this research I not only made observations in food aid organisations such as food banks, with interviews with clients, trustees, managers and volunteers, but also interviewed a number of managers and staff of supermarkets about their links with food charities.
Food poverty and food aid
Those in food poverty usually have many problems in managing their household budgets which may be further stretched by a sudden emergency. Unsurprisingly they often use food, the most elastic part of the budget, to try and make ends meet. Meals can be foregone, or cheaper food (often processed and less healthy than fresh) can be purchased. I often heard such stories from clients in food banks and community centres, particularly from parents who would feed their children first.
In response to this situation, there has been the setting up of many voluntary organisations which seek to alleviate such food poverty, most notably the food bank movement, with the Trussell Trust (www.trusselltrust.org) starting in the UK in 2000 and now having 428 food banks (‘foodbanks’) and many more centres (as show by their figures on volunteer hours in all types of food banks), while today there are at least 763 independent ones. Another major player has been Fareshare (www.fareshare.org.uk) , founded in 2004 and describing itself as ‘a charity aimed at relieving food poverty and reducing food waste in the UK. It does this by rescuing good quality surplus food that would otherwise have gone to waste and sending it to charities and community groups across the UK.’ Originally London-based, Fareshare now covers most UK regions.
At an early stage in its development, the Trussell Trust set up a ‘partnership’ with Tesco, the UK’s biggest supermarket chain, whereby the latter agreed to the placing of food bank collection bins in its stores to receive food donations from its customers. The sight of such collection bins has now become common not only in Tesco but other supermarkets as well. Tesco also allowed food charity volunteers to collect donations in kind twice a year outside the store (this has now been reduced to once a year). At the same time, Tesco provided a 30% cash donation for the value of the goods (calculated by weight), now reduced to 20%. All such donations are weighed on arrival at the food banks and a careful record kept.
More recently, food banks and other food aid organisations increasingly also receive surplus food directly from the retail outlets like Tesco with the introduction of the FareShare Food Cloud system. Fareshare organises and monitors relations between retailers and food charities whereby the latter receive text messages from the former via the Food Cloud app on the days they have been allocated supplies.
While arrangements like the Fareshare Food Cloud are highly organised, other supermarkets and food retailers also donate to charities requiring food supplies by setting up bilateral links with their local food bank, usually initiated by the food bank in negotiations with the supermarket manager. The latter may decide of his or her own volition to support a particular food bank or may have been instructed by their head office to set up such a link. Some food bank managers told me that their attempts to obtain food from some supermarkets had not been successful: ‘the manager wasn’t interested’ or reported that a successful link had been jeopardised by a change in manager at the supermarket.
Charities, companies and CSR
The development of the food bank movement has coincided with a period during which the majority of companies have adopted a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policy of some kind: today companies donate money and the time and expertise of their employees to improve their brand, raise the morale of their employees and highlight their own ‘public engagement’. A company website will almost invariably have a page on its CSR activities, which will also be highlighted in annual reports and other publications.
For their part, charities avail themselves of the opportunity to solicit donations and publicity from companies, whether by direct means (food and/or cash donations) or by getting the charity to hold prestigious fund-raising events (e.g. dinners with expensive tickets) which at the same time are newsworthy and likely to produce reports and photographs in the media. I came across at least one food aid organisation which raised money to provide for the food poor by having a bank hold a dinner in the City, while another received funding from City corporations in order to provide breakfasts for schoolchildren. In these and other cases, companies also sent in teams of ‘volunteers’ periodically to give practical assistance, a tactic which was said to build team spirit and improve morale.
So who gets what out of this situation? Clearly supermarkets benefit from their customers buying extra food to donate to the collecting baskets of the food banks and most customers support this policy. Indeed, when in 2016 Asda announced that it was no longer going to allow collections points in its stores, the petition website 38 degrees took up this cause and Asda was obliged to do a u-turn. There are also benefits from food retailers disposing of their surplus to charities. Food which is still edible but past its ‘best by date’ and therefore unsaleable does not have to go to landfill (the tax for which is high) and, since giving to charity is part of the company’s CSR policies, the brand is also enhanced. At the same time, the increasing pressures from consumers on supermarkets to ‘cut waste’ and be more environmentally friendly, both subjects of frequent mass petitions, are satisfied by having a socially useful way of disposing of ‘waste’, namely by providing some relief to those in food poverty.
Of course, the food aid organisations and companies which donate either surplus food or cash to the former argue that their raison d’etre is the alleviation of pressing need and there is no doubt that volunteers in the food bank movement help as they do because they view food poverty as ‘unacceptable’. Similarly supermarket managers, while being mindful of company policies, often expressed views about the unacceptability of food waste and their awareness of food poverty and desire to help.
Some have argued that this is the acceptable face of capitalism and that by engaging in such forms of philanthro-capitalism, much good can be done in the world (see for example Bishop and Green 2008). Even the UN Human Rights Committee has adopted a set of Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (2011), while it has been argued that the business case for CSR is compelling (Staples 2004). This is all part of what has been termed the ‘ethical turn’ in global capitalism.
So does this apparently neat fit between the existence of food poverty on the one hand and the food industry’s need to dispose of its surplus on the other, the two being linked by various food aid organisations, really solve problems of poverty or do we need to dig more deeply and consider fundamental questions such as why so many in industrial societies are falling into food poverty in the first place and why the food industry produces such vast amounts of surplus food?
Bishop, Matthew and Michael Green, 2008. Philanthro-capitalism: how giving can save the world. A and C Black, London
Fisher, Andrew, 2018. Big Hunger: the Unholy Alliance between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. MIT Press. Cambridge, Mass.
Riches, Graham, 2018. Food Bank Nations: Poverty, Corporate Charity and the Right to Food. London and New York, Routledge.
Staples, 2006. What does corporate social responsibility mean for charitable fundraising in the UK? International Journal of Non-Profit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, July 2004.