Food for thought: how to stop waste in Food Bank Britain

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Food banks, and the increasing need for them in Modern Britain, should serve as a wake-up call for wasteful spenders and cookers everywhere. It’s time to get more people, young and old, thinking far more carefully about how they buy and prepare food as the scale of food bank reliance hits home.

Iona Bain

WHY FOOD WASTAGE IS MORALLY WRONG

Kensington and Chelsea; widely considered to be one of the most affluent areas in the whole of Britain. It comes out smelling of roses in all kinds of research looking at house prices, life expectancy and other reliable measures of social progress.

Yet 794 residents in this postcode went to the local food bank, St Lukes Church, in the last financial year. How has this happened?

Statistics showing an increasing reliance on food banks have sparked controversy. Some commentators in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph point out that food banks are a relatively recent development and that as the years go by, charities like the Trussell Trust – the 17 year old charity overseeing a national food bank network – become more adept at getting the message out to those most in need. Iain Duncan Smith, the minister overseeing a comprehensive package of welfare reforms, has most notably accused the charity of making a tenuous link between food poverty and his policies in order to raise its own profile.

There is a grain of truth in the argument that demand for food banks will inevitably rise as more desperate families find out about this last resort, as it was described in a government-commissioned report last year. (Incidentally, that acknowledged that there may have be a correlation between a shrinking welfare budget and rising food bank usage, but this could not be proved.)

There has been a 54 per cent rise in food bank usage reported over the last year by Oxfam, Church Action on Poverty and the Trussell Trust. Does this mean that food bank campaigners overstate the extent of food poverty, which may have always been a fact of life in Britain?

Possibly, but let’s look at some of the present day factors that have fuelled dependency on food banks.

One place to start is a harrowing Dispatches documentary which aired last night on Channel 4. It looked at three different families struggling to afford food in Suffolk, Hull and Fulham – right in the heart of Britain’s wealthiest neighbourhood.

The documentary seeks to dispel various fears about foodbank usage – namely that a great swathe of clients are completely out of work and on benefits, or that income in some households is being spent on non-essential items. It was also clear that food banks are a source of shame for clients, who were talented cooks (even qualified chefs) who wanted to give their children nutritious meals. Some had also sought help from family and friends before turning to the food bank.

The documentary did not touch on contentious accusations that certain food banks have not been wise to those abusing its resources. Indeed, a recent BBC1 documentary about food banks alighted upon one individual who had mislead the authorities about his real needs, and volunteers who spoke to the Daily Mail attested to others who “play the system”, gaining the requisite vouchers from many different sources to maintain continuous access to this lifeline.

However, the documentary highlighted genuinely desperate, hardworking families, often forced into a nightmarish scenario where parents go without food to feed their kids or are forced to make a choice between heating and eating. It makes you wonder what might happen to some of these families if they didn’t have food banks – perhaps there would be a corresponding rise in homeless people (and children) which would make us stop in our tracks.

The programme hinted at the modern factors that could be driving food poverty – intractable labour market issues (particularly up North), illness in the family which forces the breadwinner to give up work or places parental responsibilities elsewhere, changes to disability allowance and zero hours contracts which do not supply an adequate income. Perhaps the overriding problem is that work is simply not available in some areas and many low-skilled or contract-based jobs are not paying enough to help employees keep up with housing, energy and food costs. All these are deep scars on our economic landscape – how to heal them is a matter for another day.

But what can young people do to turn back the tide of Food Bank Britain?

If you’re feeling too pinched to offer up donations to food banks, you can try volunteering for shifts, which involve packaging up goods and giving them to clients. But sadly, the foodbanks I have come across are only during the week, which is tricky for those who haven’t embraced the homeworking/freelance revolution and need to work Mon – Fri.

What about doing your bit to minimise or even eradicate food wastage?

Kerry McCarthy is a Labour MP who is proposing a parliamentary bill to get supermarkets to donate unwanted food to those in need. She has some sobering words – and statistics – to share with us:

The amount of food wasted in the UK is a scandal. Reducing food waste needs to be addressed urgently and as a growing environmental priority. In the EU, up to 50% of edible and healthy food gets wasted and is set to rise by 40% by 2020 if no action is taken. By creating a surplus of – uneaten – food, the global food industry is adding pressure on scarce land and resources, contributing to deforestation, needlessly adding to global greenhouse gas emissions and helping to drive up global food prices. Government policy focuses on enforcing the ‘waste hierarchy’ further down the pyramid, benefiting slightly environmentally better methods of disposal (such as anaerobic digestion and composting) ahead of landfill. But there is no government incentive for diverting surplus food from disposal and to those levels higher up the food waste pyramid – for human consumption, and where unfit for human consumption, livestock feed.

What about Roger Aitken, co-founder of the Oxford Food Bank? This is what he had to say in the Telegraph:

The statistics for waste are staggering – and an affront to common sense and human decency. In Britain, 15 million tons of food is wasted annually. Nearly half is thown away by us in our own homes, but farmers, manufacturers and retailers account for the rest. Collecting store-cupboard groceries and giving them away to families is a decent thing to do. The Trussell Trust will get a stockpile of food to give to poor families. However, when people buy groceries to donate to food banks, they also increase supermarket sales. And while shoppers are encouraged to buy a bit more to help the needy, around the back of every store, every day, good food will be thrown away. If the big grocery chains are sincere about wanting to combat food poverty and serious about reducing food waste, does the Oxford project not offer a compelling solution? The equation really is this simple: food poverty plus food waste can cancel each other out. All that’s needed is to match need with surplus.

Sooooo…

Next time you reach for the takeaway menu, or are poised to throw slightly out-of-date vegetables in the bin, ask yourself one simple question:

WHAT WOULD MY GRANDMA HAVE DONE?

That is the question we will be answering in a second blog post next week. I’ll also be talking about the wonders of the peasant diet, how a blender could be the best kitchen investment you make and why Ready, Steady, Cook – NOT MASTERCHEF – should be dominating the airwaves.

4 thoughts on “Food for thought: how to stop waste in Food Bank Britain

  • June 10, 2014 at 2:49 pm
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    Do not forget that the Welfare State was set up so that people did NOT have to rely on Charity !
    The problem is that most Governments have “sold ” out to America ie, the Bilderberg Group, and they do not want a social charter ( the Welfare State )

    Reply
  • June 12, 2014 at 10:46 am
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    Iona,
    Another great blog piece from you, well done. I live in Cambridgeshire, one of the wealthier parts of the country. There is a biannual event I go to with one of my old friends and was staggered, at the last one, to be told that from now on it was being moved to a different location because of the space being required for a food bank.

    I’ve lived here for more years than you are old (!), but I was staggered that even in a more well-to-do area we have now come to the need for this. It’s tragic what is happening.

    DavidC

    Reply
  • June 12, 2014 at 11:28 am
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    Hi Iona

    There is more than one issue here. Much of the food which is thrown away is not food that can be given to food banks but perishables. Food banks require food with a date of perhaps six months remaining. I am not sure how this will work in the future if the reported plans to scrap ‘best before dates’ comes into effect! We’ll end up by throwing everything away when we’re not sure!
    Supermarkets throw food away because many have policies which do not allow food on ‘the final day’ to be ‘marked down’ – even the bread! It is their prerogative?
    My daughter and I recently attended a series of ‘free’ cookery lessons that focused on recipes to use ‘leftover’ food! What a great idea – if you have a little bit of time!

    Reply

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