Who benefits from food banks? The donors? The volunteers? The recipients? You might be surprised – and dismayed – to learn that big food corporations from around the world revel in the wonderful world of food banks.
This week, the Food Bank Leadership Institute (FBLI) annual conference takes place in London for the first time. This gathering, organised by the Chicago-based Global FoodBanking Network, has long been held at the US’s largest food bank in Houston. This year’s meeting is scheduled for a couple of days before Brexit was due to take place, the break with Europe that experts predict will increase food poverty, and hence the need for more food banks. A cursory review of the meeting agenda reveals a celebratory approach to food charity, in which the hungry are fed corporate surplus rations, such as wilted lettuce, dented tins of beans and day-old pastries that could not otherwise be sold.
This is a terrible state of affairs. Rather than rewarding, and cheering on such charity, it’s time that Britain (and the US) enact policies that render obsolete the need for food banks. Studies by food poverty researchers over many years have shown the damage to people’s dignity that using food banks causes. Yet we seem to be heading in the opposite direction.
Advocating for fundamental change is difficult when we come up against popular sentiments such as “given so many hungry people in this world, it is wicked that we waste perfectly good food”. It is hard to argue with the moral imperative of not tossing food into the bin unnecessarily. Indeed, the idea of “waste not, want not” is deeply embedded in our culture.
Dave Lewis, the CEO of Tesco, will be delivering the keynote speech at the FBLI conference and he surely won’t be talking about the living wage that the company fails to pay its workers, but about how non-profits such as FareShare and the Trussell Trust can provide it with a socially acceptable avenue for taking the supermarket giant’s waste off its hands, all while enhancing its reputation as a good corporate citizen.
It’s a win-win for Big Food when it donates its leftover food to society’s left-behind people. In fact last year the environment secretary, Michael Gove, announced a £15m fund to support the expansion of charitable surplus-food redistribution, the first round of which was earmarked to enable redistribution organisations to purchase surplus food. Gove appointed Ben Elliot, the co-founder of luxury lifestyle group Quintessentially, as the first “food surplus and waste champion” to reduce “unnecessary” food surplus in the UK. Essentially, this means the state is subsidising corporations to waste food and then redistribute it in a fashion that boosts their reputation as good corporate citizens.
Yet, when we expect the poor to be the consumers of this surplus, we dehumanise them, treating them as society’s waste disposal. By giving them unhealthy and often unsuitable leftovers, we ignore the fact that the poor are more vulnerable to chronic diseases such as diabetes because of the high cost of a healthy diet. And we disguise the causes of industrial-scale food waste: excessive production and profit-motivated overstocking.
Charity has long provided an outlet for surpluses that might otherwise topple prices or lead to public shame and high disposal fees for companies. Researchers have argued that “the benefits of using food waste to feed people accrue primarily to the food industry while absolving responsibility of the government to address food insecurity”. This responsibility also accrues to the business community to pay living wages. In this light, Lewis’s appearance at the FBLI event is a brazen attempt to redefine the solutions to food poverty towards corporate munificence rather than economic or social justice.
Are there signs of hope? We have seen a sharp change in how charities such as the Trussell Trust talk about food banks. One of Trussell’s previous CEOs once said “every town should have [a food bank]”, but more recently CEO Emma Revie has expressed a desire to put Trussell “out of business”. She has taken bold steps towards this end and insists that food banks should not be the long-term solution. The Trussell Trust has been publicly advocating on, for example, the ways in which universal credit has harmed the most marginalised claimants.
But at the same time, it has been pointed out that Trussell’s bold plans look less credible following the decision last year to accept £9m from the supermarket giant Asda. There are many ironies of allowing a supermarket that fails to pay its workers a living wage to position itself as a “hunger fighter” rather than a “hunger causer”. FareShare, similarly, has received millions of pounds of corporate donations, in addition to campaigning for the aforementioned government support, and has expanded its warehousing and logistics capacity (both it and Trussell still rely on armies of unpaid volunteers).
Perhaps it is too late to halt the entrenchment of food charity in the UK. Perhaps austerity policies combined with low wages, precarious work and the appeal of community-based charity have led us down the same unfortunate path as in the US. But admitting that we have failed, and that a simple return is not possible, need not plunge us into despondency. It should be a spur to organising. Just as the Global FoodBanking Network has evolved to disperse the charitable food model across the world, a similar international effort could work towards the goal of ending world hunger, without the sacrifice of human rights and dignity.
• Kayleigh Garthwaite is a fellow at the department of social policy, sociology and criminology at the University of Birmingham. She wrote this article with Dr Charlie Spring, research associate at the University of Sheffield, and Andy Fisher, co-founder and former executive director of the Community Food Security Coalition