Feeding people first: change is on the horizon

22 October 2018

SHOULD surplus food that’s fine to eat be a) given to the one in eight British people who struggle to put food on the table b) fed to animals or c) used as fuel? Even chocolate cake?

If you’re concerned that anyone would even consider the last two options then listen up.

Because the government currently subsidises big food firms, supermarkets and farms to deposit their excess and surplus food – and here we’re even talking about food such as fresh salmon, bread, new potatoes and cheese – in giant compost heaps called anaerobic digesters (AD).

Companies can get an income stream from sending waste to AD. And because they, like everyone else, need to watch their costs, many do – even though they’d actually rather give the food to people who need it.

Indeed, the government’s own Waste Hierarchy calls for companies to first try and reduce surplus, then ensure it goes to feed people in need, then for livestock food, then the digesters before even considering landfill.

It is a legal requirement for UK companies to operate according to these principles.

But many are not.

Luckily, however, there is a plan.

And it’s been formulated by FareShare, Britain’s biggest redistributor of quality surplus food.

Every week it redistributes surplus food to charities and people in need, enough food to feed 770,000 people. That’s 36 million meals a year and a saving of over £28 million to the charity sector. Not to mention the environmental benefit of not chucking away food which has taken millions of tonnes of carbon and water to produce, grow, package and distribute.

The food isn’t waste, explains the charity’s CEO, Lindsay Boswell. It’s simply the excess amounts from supermarkets like Tesco, or chains like Wetherspoons, or farms or manufacturers, and the charities which take it provide meals to people in need – such as children’s breakfast clubs, day clubs for older people, domestic violence refuges, homeless shelters and drug and alcohol rehab units.

But the charity could save thousands more tonnes of good food and get it to people who need it if the government can shift its policy, he suggests.

“We are calling on the Government to set up a £15m fund to offset the costs of charitable food redistribution. This would enable food businesses to send their surplus food to charity by removing the costs of repacking, harvesting, transporting and handling which are current barriers. By accessing redistributed surplus food, UK charities could save £150m, helping them to increase their services and feed even more people in need.”

Lindsay Boswell, CEO FareShare

The government’s money would help pay for the diesel and chiller units and the other costs FareShare bears in its quest to turn a grave environmental problem into a social solution.

It’s a no-brainer.

But, FareShare believes, the government needed a little more persuading.

So it’s launched Feed People First.

It’s a campaign designed to spread the word about the current waste of good to eat, surplus food and how all of us can do something about it.

More than 16,000 people signed FareShare’s petition before it closed and the charity is hoping that as more of us come to understand the size of the issue, and what’s possible with more resources, we’ll put the pressure on, too.

“Right now in the UK it can be more expensive to feed good food to people than it is to send it to be turned into energy,” says Lindsay Boswell.

“Food manufacturers tell us it can cost them up to £150 a tonne to separate, store and transport eligible surplus food to charity, including lost revenue - which is why the food is sold to anaerobic digestion plants where it’s turned into fuel. We like the idea of turning waste into energy – but not when it’s good food that can still be eaten.”

When you consider that despite FareShare’s good work, every year at least 270,000 tonnes of perfectly good food is wasted in UK food production - it is a scandal.

“FareShare redistributes just five per cent of the available surplus food, but with that we help feed over three quarters of a million people a week. Just imagine what we could do with 100,000 tonnes.”

Lindsay Boswell, CEO FareShare

As one in five of the charities which receive FareShare food say they’d have to close without it, it’s easy to see how much more could be done with more food. And those charities that could continue running with FareShare assistance estimate it would cost them an average £7,900 a year to replace the food they get from the charity.

And if it all sounds like a very big ask, then consider this: France is already doing it, saving around 100,000 tonnes of surplus food each year from being wasted.

Big UK retailers are already on board with the FareShare vision.

Tesco has steadily upped its involvement, rolling out surplus food diversions from its Fresh Supply Chain - FareShare now receives surplus food from all eleven Tesco Fresh Distribution Centres, including fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, dairy and chilled ready meals.

Tesco has also embraced FareShare Go, a service through which small charities are now able, through a text, to be alerted about surplus food which they can collect direct from their local store, for free. Last year Tesco rolled this out to all its stores across the country, and Waitrose have followed suit.

Since 2015 the Co-op has instigated a scheme which has seen enough surplus food redistributed to provide more than one million meals. Meanwhile, Asda introduced a new process to divert supplier excess directly to FareShare, saving many more thousands of tonnes of food waste. The partnership is one of the largest of its kind in the UK grocery sector, allowing Asda and its suppliers to turn an environmental problem for them into a real benefit for communities.

It comes on top of a £20 million investment by the supermarket in FareShare and foodbank charity The Trussell Trust as part of Asda’s Fight Hunger, Create Change initiative.

So, what’s next?

The government says it is reviewing its Waste and Resources Strategy and as part of that, will look at how food surplus can be further reduced or redistributed to feed people first.
Michael Gove has announced at the Conservative Annual Conference that a £15m fund will be made available to offset the cost of diverting surplus food within the supply chain to charities. After five years of campaigning with other food charities, industry and The Grocer, and this year’s successful petition, we got the Government on our side.

It’s an enormous step forward, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Over the coming months we’ll be working with industry and DEFRA to make sure this food really delivers for the charitable sector: pushing for the fund to be focused on those food businesses whose surplus food charities want. This fund must not become a way for food that is not needed to be dumped on the voluntary sector.

We’ll also be working closely with other food redistribution charities to create the most efficient and cost-effective charitable redistribution system possible, avoiding duplicating supply chain logistics – and making it as easy as possible for charities on the ground to get hold of the food.

In the meantime Lindsay Boswell says: “The FareShare vision has always been to let no good food go to waste. We have great relationships with hundreds of food manufacturers, producers, suppliers and retailers to capture as much of their surplus as we can – but we need more, and the Government will now help us achieve this.”

Think we should be making sure that more good quality food reaches the people who need it? Go to fareshare.org.uk/volunteer to find out how you can help #feedpeoplefirst: