There have been a number of arguments in the press and on social media arguing that the use of surplus food to feed food insecure people is at best only a short-term solution and at worst harmful (e.g., Caraher 2017). I would agree that the hunger that is caused by poverty is not only not being addressed by the UK government (see Blake 2015, and a more recent update of the article published by GMPA) but in some cases is being enhanced by current government policy (e.g., a benefits system that has built in delays, draconian sanctions, programme cuts that impact on the most vulnerable). In reading the argument, however, a number of issues stand out as needing further clarification and interrogation. Firstly, there is a lack of understanding about food surplus in terms of what it is. Secondly, there is misconception about how food surplus becomes food for bellies as it travels through the charity sector. Thirdly, there is an overly narrow understanding of the value of surplus food both for charities and those whom they support. These issues are explored in this blog post.
What is surplus food?
In the process of producing the food that we purchase, food is also diverted from the commercial supply chain before it reaches a point of sale or at point of sale for a myriad of reasons. For example, the unpredictability of the weather may lead a farmer to plan for risk-minimizing scenarios (e.g., low harvest and loss of quality in transportation) in order to ensure that contractual agreements with a retailer are met, then if there is a good year, and a crop is bigger than expected there is excess. This excess production becomes a surplus. Supermarket contracts, which are made in advance of harvest, offer security to the farmer, but they are also based on exclusivity. As a result, the food produced in excess of the contract becomes food that is not sell-able. It is still edible. The difference between the apple that is sent to the supermarket and the apple that is unsold in terms of its nutritional value is indiscernible. This is not the only scenario. Food also is excluded from the commercial system when the packaging, for example is not printed correctly or is the wrong colour or is damaged in transport. This is also surplus food. Sometimes food may exit the commercial food chain because a retailer cancels or reduces an order after the producer has completed production. When volumes are large, producers sell this food to discount retailers who sell the items off cheaply, but in order to be profitable these chains require very large volumes. In such cases the food is rescued from becoming surplus by the discount stores. In doing so this almost-surplus food becomes discount food. It is not profitable for these stores to take small volumes, which may still be a lot of food, and as a result, the food remains part of the commercial food sector, but at the same time unsellable. It becomes surplus.
Food that is surplus can also be considered as up-stream or longer-life surplus (e.g. from food producers, well within its use-by and best-before dates) and last-mile, or short-life, surplus (e.g., from restaurants, supermarkets, caterers and other food businesses). All types of food items from vegetables to steak and lobster to crisps and candy can find their way into the surplus pool, the pool of food that could be sold, but for some reason is not. In contrast, food that we purchase or otherwise source and take home to eat is not surplus food. Its purchase moves it beyond the commercial supply chain. It has achieved its commercial objective of being sold. Likewise, purchased food donated to a food charity through a collection drive is also not surplus. Like the food we take home, this is food that has left the commercial supply chain through the means that was intended, namely its purchase. Food purchased by organizations for consumption is also not surplus food, because again it is food that has achieved its commercial aim of being sold. Eating is not a commercial objective although it may be a social objective or an environmental objective.
Unfortunately, despite the fact that food is surplus and as a result still good for consumption, much of this surplus food is discarded by the food producing sector. Approximately 4 million tons of food per year is wasted in the food manufacture, retail and wholesale sectors (WRAP, 2015). We do know that some surplus food is being diverted from becoming waste, but we do not know how many organisations in the UK use surplus food as there is no requirement by the UK government for businesses to report the volume of surplus that is produced (although a few report this voluntarily). Likewise, there is also no national reporting on how surplus food is redistributed (e.g., directly or via another organisation or a combination of both) to community organisations and then on to users or how much is redistributed. Our best estimates come from FareShare, which is the largest surplus food business-to-community-organisation redistributor in the UK. For those more than 6000 community organisations in the FareShare network, approximately 52% of the total food used by these organisations comes from surplus food, 36% is purchased, and only approximately 10% is from donations.
How is food surplus distributed to those in need?
Surplus food is saved from becoming food waste when it is redistributed from the commercial supply chain to people who can eat it. The community support sector (e.g., voluntary organisations, social enterprises, community groups) are the most secure, safe and organised way that food insecure people can access surplus food in the UK. The simplest, but least reliable in terms of supply and quality and the most time intensive for the community organistion is for the organisation to negotiate directly with the source of the surplus. Alternatively, organisations can use a redistribution supplier to access surplus food, such as FareShare, Plan Zhereos, City Harvest, among others. FareShare, redistributes food using two approaches. Approximately half of the organisations receive deliveries of surplus from FareShare, with the remainder participating in the FareShare FoodCloud, which digitally connects a the community organisation with a local food retailor. The organisation then selects what they want, can transport, and can store from what is available for their organisation. City Harvest only provides delivery, while Plan Zhereos relies primarily on the digital method for connecting organisations to surplus food.
Food using organisations are the front line for distributing food to those in need. We do not have a clear idea of the number of organisations who use food to support those in need in the UK as again data is not systematically collected. FareShare does collect information about those organisations who use their service, which provides an idea of the diversity of these organisations. Most of the organisations (78%) indicate that food provision is their main remit, meaning that for 22% food is not the main purpose of the organisation, but instead food is used to “get people in the door”. Those organisations that see their remit as food provision also often offer other support that is not food related alongside their food projects, such as health screening, day-care, housing support, mental health and addiction services, benefits support, and so forth. FareShare estimates that approximately 412,000 meals are distributed through community organisations each week, or more than 21 million meals in 2015.
There is a widely held presumption that organisations that use surplus food to provide food to those in need do so through what has become understood to be the “foodbank model”. This model involves giving those in need food parcels that are taken home to be cooked and eaten. The Trussell Trust is the largest umbrella organisation supporting this form of food distribution, with approximately 400 community organisations subscribing to their model. Not all organisations who provide an emergency food parcel operate under the Trussell Trust umbrella. Moreover, surplus food does not tend to make up the core of the parcel, which generally comes from consumer donations or from purchase by the organisation. Organisations may supplement the basic parcel with surplus food either directly into the parcel or in other ways that offer choice, such as a take as you need food table. Finally, foodbanks frequently sit within organisations who also offer other community based programmes and avenues for accessing food. FareShare estimates that they provide about 56% of the food their partner community organisations use. Comparatively 11% is from donations and the remainder is purchased by the organisation from a food retailer.
Many organisation offer other food programmes and activities to a wider segment of the population, beyond those who have an emergency need, but who may still be food insecure. Of the more than 6 thousand organisation that use FareShare as their source of surplus food, remembering that surplus food is not the only source of food used by charities, only 17% run food banks, while 40% run some form of community café project. The remainder includes other activities such as cooking activities with adults and children, meals delivered to people’s homes, and community food tables as well as activities where a meal or snack may also be offered.
What is the value of surplus food?
Surplus food provides great value to the organisations who receive this food as well as the people they serve. Research with organisations accessing food through the FareShare network indicates that each week organisations save approximately $152 per week because they do not have to purchase food for their programmes (see the NATCEN research report). These organisations also say that they can then use this savings to invest in other activities, staff and resources needed to support their communities or to continue to operate. About one fifth of the organisations said that they would be forced to reduce the quality of the food they provided if the no longer were able to access surplus food and nearly just as many said they would no longer be able to operate at all if surplus food was no longer available.
Those on the receiving end of projects where surplus food is used also felt a number of benefits as a result of the projects that are offered. These benefits include access to food that they would not be able to buy themselves, such as eating more fruits and vegetables. Clients also indicated that they experienced improvements in physical and mental wellbeing as a result in participation in the programmes. Almost all clients who receive a meal, 92%, said that being able to have a meal at the service helps them ‘face the day ahead’ and 82% said that the meal makes them feel part of a community. Finally, for a significant number, 75%, access to surplus food through a community organisation means that they are able to save money on already tight household budgets (NatCen). For some, 39%, the access to food through community organisations who use surplus food, is all that stands between them and hunger or debt. Community organisations also report that food gets people through the door, which then allows the organisation to support those in their communities to find employment, manage their finances, exercise, find the care that they need to support mental health issues, reduce dependency on drugs and alcohol, and so forth.
Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater
Surplus food is food that is still good food to eat, but for some–usually human produced– reason, has become surplus to the needs of the commercial food sector. Community organisations that use surplus food also rely on other food sources to meet their organisation’s overall food needs including purchasing food and relying on donations. Community organisations use surplus food in a variety of ways, often through a variety of projects, and often alongside other support services. Those who access this food experience important benefits from being able to eat this food that include nutritional and economic benefit, but also other social benefits. Moreover these benefits also extend into their communities and British society more widely.
These benefits should not be interpreted as a free pass to government to ignore how its policies contribute to the causes of poverty or its role in creating divisions in communities. While surplus food in and of itself will not solve the problems of food poverty, its use by community organisations enables wellbeing and community resilience in ways that extend beyond the meal that it provides. Surplus food enables community organisations to support and maintain communities and the people within them in ways that are sensitive to the needs of those communities. At present the balance between what is the responsibility of the government and what can be better achieved through community involvement needs greater untangling. As a nation, however, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by rejecting the use of surplus food as a means for supporting community organisations who support vulnerable people.