Redistribution of surplus food is NOT the solution to food poverty
Updated: May 11
Dr Martin Caraher and Dr Sinead Furey: Redistribution of surplus food is NOT the solution to food poverty.
Dr Martin Caraher is professor of food and health policy at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. Dr Sinéad Furey is a Lecturer on the Consumer Management and Food Innovation undergraduate degree programme at Ulster University Business School.
The UK Government has appointed (December 31 2018) its first Food Surplus and Waste Champion to help promote awareness of the issue of food waste as part of its Resources and Waste Strategy. Chief among its aims are to minimise waste, promote resource efficiency and move towards a circular economy (DEFRA, 2018). At the same time the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee recommends the appointment of a Minister for Hunger! Not since WWII have food and food systems received so much attention, albeit attention of the wrong kind (Collingham, 2011, Thane, 2018).
Wasted food does not solve food poverty In January 2017, we wrote a briefing paper entitled Is it appropriate to use surplus food to feed people in hunger? Short-term Band-Aid to more deep rooted problems of poverty. Drawing on this and other work in this piece, we set out an argument that the use of surplus, saleable food should not be viewed as the default solution for food poverty. To do so, may be viewed as serving “leftover food to left behind people” (Riches, 2018) which represents a two-tier approach to a rights-based food issue. If we focus on redistributing surplus food then this practice undermines calls for direct actions to be taken that simultaneously reduce the production of surplus food, address the wider policy issues contributing to food poverty, and ensure the right to food. In redeploying surplus food, we are effectively detracting from two significant food system failings while depoliticising hunger and allowing governments not to address the gap between income and food costs. In effect, we are absolving the government from their duty as signatories to the Sustainable Development Goals to deliver against published commitments for Zero Hunger and No Poverty.
Notably the Resources and Waste Strategy commits to consulting on annual reporting of food surplus and waste by food businesses; consulting on legal powers to introduce food waste targets and surplus food redistribution obligations; and publish a new food surplus and waste hierarchy where ideally, surplus food should, as a priority, be redistributed for people to eat (with Plan B being that it is used in animal feed production or for bio-material processing). Tesco has committed to public disclosure of its waste food data and called for other retailers to do the same.
Of course tackling food waste and using resources responsibly and promoting a circular economy whereby we get every last possible use from resources can only be a good thing. In being such responsible consumers and citizens, we attach value to our resources and hopefully reduce our practice of a throwaway economy.
The idea of linking surplus food from the food chain with meeting the needs of marginalized groups and hunger is not new. There is a continuing tendency to link the issue of people facing insecure and insufficient food access to the issue of food waste/surplus, often expressed with disbelief that both scenarios should co-exist in the same country. It is concerning that the repurposing of wasted food continues to be the normalised response to the existence of food poverty (the inability to afford or access healthy food to meet our needs in socially acceptable ways) among our people. The reduction of the problem to one of simple logistics and access to food misses the dignity and social justice issues of food poverty.
Food waste is a significant global issue and so the current debate on how to reduce it across the entire food chain needs to continue. Every player across the food chain plays a part in contributing towards the creation of waste. The UK currently discards approximately ten million tonnes of food (worth £17 billion) every year, 60% of which could have been avoided (WRAP, 2017). Notably householders throw away approximately one-third of the food they purchase. How much more sustainable would it be if retailers matched supply to demand via ever more intelligent just in time ordering and we as consumers prepared only as much food as we need to eat and re-learned how to safely use our refrigerators and freezers to safely store food? Technology and better forecasting have enabled retailers to significantly cut down on waste, resulting in a shift of the burden of waste to the home. It is likely that future smart home technology will deliver savings in the home.
We have approximately 8.4 million people in the UK who are struggling to afford to eat (Food Foundation, 2016) with the effect that food poverty has been declared a public health emergency. In the short term the problem is hunger, and in the longer term the issue becomes one of malnutrition and anxiety. The current go-to response of increased reliance on food banks resourced by uncertain supplies of surplus food has not been effective in reducing hunger or supporting clients out of poverty in the longer term. North America has implemented this emergency response for decades and there are fears that food banks have become institutionalised there. The UK must learn from this history and strive not to replicate the practice here. Food poverty needs to be located within a context of dignity and the stresses of worrying day-in/day-out about food, its price and suitability for your family. A fact recognised by the activities by Nourish Scotland and the campaign to place rights and dignity at the centre of food: http://www.nourishscotland.org/campaigns/). While the appointment of a Minister for Hunger may, on first viewing, be attractive it again reduces the problem to one of civil society as the report says ‘They should work with civil society to explore the scale, causes and impact of hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition; implement strategies for improvement, and monitor progress’. Better that they sort out the issues across government between DEFRA, DWP, Health, Employment, Transport and Education. In the setting up the welfare state the Ministry of Health had responsibility for a broad range of activities including housing policy. Why not give the Cabinet Office responsibility for ensuring ‘hunger’ is addressed across departments and government agencies? The original great evils were set out as the ‘five giants’ of want, squalor, ignorance, idleness and disease’;these have not disappeared or been tackled, merely adapted to modern times. The evil of hunger will not be addressed as a single issue without addressing other evils by, for example, controlling rental/house costs and the gap between income and food prices.
In our 2017 paper, we recognised the clear benefits to diverting surplus food away from landfill, but maintain that the reasons for pessimism outweigh those for optimism. This is because the benefits of using food waste to feed people accrue primarily to the food industry whilst absolving responsibility of the government to addressing food poverty. Our analysis is that the use of surplus food as a response to food poverty is problematic because it serves to distract political and popular opinion away from the food waste issue, cannot guarantee a continuous supply of appropriate (socially of healthy) foods and is ultimately demeaning to recipients.
Concluding thoughts… We conclude that the Resources and Waste Strategyand appointment of a Food Waste Champion represent missed opportunities to urgently and radically address the main policy drivers that contribute to food poverty. We can still address the rising gap between income and food prices by pursuing policy actions that maximise income and benefit realisation. If we focus on this approach, we have the greatest chance to achieve the sustainable and meaningful solutions required to lift our most vulnerable citizens out of food poverty. It is a disservice to our food poor todistract from the underlying issues of food insecurity; it is already proven to be ineffective to continue to rely on systems that encourage the use of waste and surplus food as they do not reduce the production of excess by our food system nor ultimately address the underlying socio-economic causes of food poverty.
You can read more about our opinions on surplus food in our recent book, The Economics of Emergency Food Aid Provision: A Financial, Social and Cultural Perspective where we discuss the issues of addressing hunger with waste or surplus food and how this is misaligned with the rights of citizens to an appropriate food supply.