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  • Professor Graham Riches

Exiting US style corporate food banking. Why the right to food in hungry Britain matters.

Updated: May 11, 2023

Professor Graham Riches on Exiting US style corporate food banking. Why the right to food in hungry Britain matters.

Just when the Brexit beleaguered and austerity driven UK government decides to measure food insecurity, the influential US based Global Foodbanking Network (GFN) is to hold its international Food Bank Leadership (FBLI) summit in London including a reception with MPs on Tuesday evening. The conference theme of ‘One Network. Towards Zero Hunger’ promotes corporate food banking as the link between food waste and hunger.

The Chicago based GFN was formed in 2006 by the national food bank associations of Argentina, Canada, Mexico and the US, followed a year later by the FBLI, its Texas based affiliate. The European Federation of Food Banks (FEBA); Feeding America and the UK’s own FareShare shape the agenda as do invited Big Food retailers and corporate partners including Tesco, General Mills, Pepsico, Accenture, Bramble, Danone, Walmart, H-E-B, Nestlé, Griffith Foods, FoodDrinkEurope, the World Resource Institute and the London Food Board.

A ‘green’ solution to zerohunger, really?

The GFNpromotes food banking ‘as a business solution to hunger’ with a self-appointed international role certifying food banks and training volunteers. Indeed the summit claims food banking is ‘truly the “green” hunger intervention’ advancing the UN Sustainable Development Goals of zero hunger(SDG 2) and responsible consumption and production(SDG 12). No small challenge when zero hungermeans a world without food banks yet continuously reliant on corporate food waste to stock their shelves. Doubly challenging when the right to food misses the agenda.

Charitable food banking, at the waste end of the industrial food supply chain, is now tightly entwined with Big Food corporate social responsibility, increasingly dependent on endless supplies of surplus or ‘left-over’ food’ being fed to ‘left behind‘ people themselves surplus to labour market requirements. It is all about ‘feeding the need’ (Fisher, 2017). Yet food poverty in wealthy and food secureNorth America and the UK remains entrenched. This is no surprise. As Sabine Goodwin, IFAN Coordinator, has written ‘if you’re about to step into a food bank for an emergency parcel what you’re in need of most is money not food’ (2018). Income poverty is the reason. Yet food safety nets supplant financial assistance while indifferent governments look away.

Perpetuating poverty and insecurity

There are many reasons why hungry Britain must resist the further embrace of US style corporate food banking. The growth of a parallel food charity economy perpetuates food poverty by undermining the UK’s long established system of income-based social security.

  • from income assistance to food assistance

In the post WW11 era each country’s welfare state put in place quite different policies for addressing domestic hunger and poverty. The US chose emergency public food aid and food stamps later backstopped by charitable food banks as its primary antidote. Its heavily subsidized agricultural system created mountains of surplus food destined for overseas and domestic food aid protected by the powerful Congressional farm lobby.

Since the late 1960s this nourished the growth and corporate capture of charitable food banking, its northward spread to Canada in 1981, then onto France and across the OECD. This transnational privatization of welfare was fueled by Big Ag, Big Food and Corporate America’s unholy alliance with the US anti-hunger movement (Fisher, 2017), with FareShare and Tesco in the UK driver’s seat.

Food assistance differed markedly from the UK’s welfare state which at least until the 2008 Great Recession provided a comprehensive system of publicly funded financial assistance, social security and universal health care. It was not perfect but historically the UK recognized the unemployed, the working poor, those with disabilities, the homeless needed cash in hand - rights based income benefits not food hand-outs. Yet forty years of neoliberalism and punitive welfare have steadily eroded such entitlements.

  • decoupling food waste from food poverty

Mixing and matching food waste with food poverty as the GFN preaches must also be challenged. It is flawed logic. Undeniably both are ubiquitous and chronic. Yet they are separate issues. Hand-in-hand they confuse and mystify.

Food waste is a symptom of an upstream dysfunctional industrial food system - overproduction, over-ordering, overstocking, over supplying; and downstream over-purchasing and over-consumption driven by relentless advertising in the rich ‘throwaway’ world. Yet between 2007-2012 only 3.2% of estimated food loss and waste in the USA was redistributed by food bank associations; 0.1% in Canada; 0.94% in Europe; with UK data unavailable (Riches, 2018).

More to the point rich world food insecurity is a symptom of income poverty, inequality and neglectful public policy. It reflects the moral vacuum at the centre of neoliberalism – austerity, dismantled welfare states, unfair income distribution and regressive taxation – a massive breakdown of the social contract.

Surplus food may temporarily relieve hunger but food banks are always running out of food, have variable eligibility criteria, may close early and are frequently unable to meet the nutritional and dietary needs of vulnerable populations. Indeed they have been termed ‘successful failures’ (Ronson & Caraher, 2016) aptly reflecting their longevity as ‘shunting yards’ in North America (Canada - 38 yrs; USA - 52 yrs). As research continues to show food poverty is primarily caused by income inadequacy.

US style corporate food banking is not a quick fix nor long term ‘green’ solution to food waste reduction and neither a path to zero hunger and food security for all. Using the symptom of food waste to treat the symptom of food poverty masks the complex systemic causes of each, confusing the two prolongs the footprints of each. Food waste and food poverty must be uncoupled.

  • Beyond tax breaks and Universal Credit: searching for moral legitimacy

Who benefits and why from US style corporate tax breaks incentivizing the distribution of edible food waste to food bank shelves? The moral imperative to feed hungry people is clear. Yet Big Food tax incentives more likely favour competitive branding, corporate social investment, the bottom lineand shareholders’ interests than reducing poverty. Ironically such foregone revenues diminish the national exchequer but benefit hawkish governments promising ever lower taxes. Meanwhile widespread food poverty remains entrenched. Left unnoticed is the stigma and shame of those left begging for ‘left-over’ food.

Surely the UK, the world’s 5th largest economy,must question whether feeding corporate food waste to hungry people really is the best its government can do? Is it publicly acceptable that institutionalised food banking has become Universal Credit’s everyday handmaiden with zeroprospects for zero hunger ever happening. Searching for moral legitimacy there is a need to change the conversation to the right to food and why it matters.

Ratification of the right to food, why it matters

The social construction of hunger as a matter for charity de-politicises food poverty as central to public policy. The UK government is absolved from its moral, legal and political obligations to ensure food security for all. Let the market reign. Yet under international lawthe right to foodoffers a counter-narrative to the neoliberal corporate capture of food charity, welfare policy and poverty reduction.

Food is understood as a basic human need and fundamental human right, an essential matter of public policy: the right of all to purchase the food of their choice in dignified, normal and customary ways - having enough money in your pocket to shop for food like anyone else.

These are not novel, radical or subversive ideas but universally recognised in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights(1948) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) ratified by the UK in 1976 though never by the USA. Ratification holds UN member states publicly to account and subject to periodic reviews. Inherently and under international law we are all ‘rights holders’ with the State as ‘primary duty bearer’ for enabling access to food for everyone inclusive of an adequate standard of living.

State Parties to the ICESCRare required to ‘respect, protect and fulfill’ the right to food. This includes for example: income adequacy (wages and benefits), not delaying or cutting benefits or imposing punitive sanctions; passing legislation to ensure healthy, nutritious and safe food; and taking positive actions – e.g., living wages, adequate basic income, affordable housing - to ensure the most vulnerable can put food on the table (GC 12, 1999, Ziegler et al, 2011; Riches, 2019).

The right to food is a legal right and justiciable claim actionable in the courts. It establishes remedies such as appeal tribunals. A right is not a right unless it can be claimed. It is therefore not about charity which is solely at the discretion of the donor. This is never to suggest that individuals and business should not be altruistic. However the sad fact is that government in food secure Britain is so beholden to Big Food corporate food waste that rights based income security has given way to institutionalized, ineffective and stigmatizing food relief.

Rights talk, civil society holding governments to account

We are all ‘rights holders’. When basic human needs are unaddressed the State bears moral, legal and political obligations to act in collective solidarity with the poor by ensuring coordinated public action. Widespread food poverty in the UK, indeed across the OECD demands this. Rights talk, by holding government to account, matters. It requires civil society’s ‘joined-up’ activism with a right to food ’bite’.

In the UK there is good news. Despite the GFN’s UK visit, civil society is assertively pursuing right to food approaches. Having written about first world hunger since the mid-1980s it is more than encouraging to see engaged academic research and public debate about food charity, the politics of food distribution, the primacy of income based solutions and ‘joined-up’ food, health and social policy informed by human rights. Officially measuring UK food insecurity is a huge step forward.

As is civil society debate and action led by the UK’s food and social justice organizations including the UK Food Poverty Alliance and its campaigning arm the End Hunger UK coalition including the Food Foundation; CPAG; Oxfam; the Trussell Trust ; the Independent Food Aid Network; Nourish Scotland; Church Action on Poverty; Sustain and its Right to Food Programme; as well as Scotland’s A Menu for Change: Cash – Rights – Foodand Just Fair. Notably exiting food banks is on the Trussell Trust’s agenda. Meanwhile the coalition in holding government to account for UK food security well understands the challenges that lie ahead.

As Louise Arbour (former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights) has written: ‘the reason that “rights talk” is resisted by the powerful is precisely because it threatens (or promises) to rectify distributions of political, social or economic power that, under internationally agreed standards and values, are unjust’ (2005). This is why implementing the right to food matters.

Graham Riches, University of British Columbia Food Bank Nations. Corporate Charity and the Right to Food (Routledge, 2018)

Selected references Arbour L (2005) ‘Freedom From Want’ - From Charity to Entitlement. Quebec City: LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture. Fisher A (2017) Big Hunger. The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups. Cambridge, Massachussets; London, England: MIT Press, 343 p. GC 12 (1999) General Comment 12, UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Right to Adequate Food (Article 11) E/C.12/1999/5.Available at Goodwin, S (2018) Report on Scotland’s independent food banks A Menu for Change, IFAN Abingdon, Oxon, UK; New York, NY: Earthscan/Routledge, 2108 Riches G (in press)). The right to food, why US ratification matters. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems1–4. Ronson D and Caraher M (2016) Food banks: Big society or shunting yards? Successful failures. Ch. 8. In Caraher M and Coveney J (eds), Food Povertyand Insecurity: International Food Inequalities. Switzerland: Springer International, pp. 77–88. Ziegler J, Golay C, Mahon C and Way S-A (2011) The Fight for the Right to Food: Lessons Learned.Houndmills, Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 440 p.


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