Surplus food is no solution to food poverty

In February this year, the leaders of Edinburgh and Glasgow City Councils published a joint statement on food poverty in which they asserted: “we believe that food waste is not an effective or socially just solution to food poverty”. The Council leaders clearly stated food poverty to be an issue of social justice and human rights. Food banks reliant on donations from supermarkets and the general public cannot sustainably feed the increasing numbers of people facing financial hardship. Nor, in a society which prides itself on progressive values of social justice, should they be expected to. The call, made by MSP Stuart McMillan last week, that Scotland should follow France in legislating that supermarkets donate waste food to charities, threatens to undermine this position and further entrench food banks in Scotland’s welfare system.

Within the context of austerity, cuts to the welfare budget, and increasing conditionality measures placed on benefit claimants, food banks have become the lens through which we view these changes and debate their impacts. Speaking on BBC Scotland last Saturday Gillian Kynoch, Head of Fairshare Scotland importantly highlighted that redistribution to charities is only “the tip of the iceberg” in terms of the scale of food waste in this country. What was not mentioned however is that the number of people receiving this food via food banks and similar services is only the tip of the iceberg which is the rising number of those facing extreme poverty and destitution, unable to afford to feed themselves. EuroStat data shows that between 2010 and 2014 the number of people in the UK unable to afford a meal with meat (or vegetarian equivalent) every second day rose from 4 per cent to 8.7 per cent. Analysis of this data at a European level shows that with the introduction of austerity across Europe in 2009, the trend since 2005 of declining levels of food insecurity reversed and has remained raised ever since. In the UK there has been significant attention paid to determining the drivers of the growth of food bank usage, and in particular to evidencing the link with the UK Government’s welfare reform agenda. According to data from the Trussell Trust, the primary cause for referrals to their food banks for 2013/14 was benefit delays, followed by low income and benefit changes. More specifically, the punitive sanctions regime is reported as a significant factor in the rise in food bank use.

The bold statement from the two City Council leaders came as a powerful response to the recommendations of the recent All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom which called for an expansion of the food bank system, supplied by corporate food waste. The Inquiry’s report claimed that: “government alone does not have the skills or the adaptability that is required to wage a successful war on hunger” and recommended that financial incentives be introduced to increase the supply of surplus food to charities diverted from landfill – proposals which our Council leaders identified as “deeply flawed”.

Scottish Government commissioned research on emergency food aid published by the Poverty Alliance this year showed that those working in food banks in Scotland themselves feel deeply concerned about the increasing pressures put on them, mostly small, voluntary-run groups, to support the most vulnerable. It was felt that the state is failing in its responsibility to provide an adequate social security net. Elsewhere research has highlighted the impacts of food bank use on mental health and the stigma associated with having to access them.

If we are looking to examples from abroad, it is helpful to consider the evidence from countries where surplus food redistribution to food banks is long established. In Canada, for example, a study in Toronto found that food banks were used by less than a quarter of food insecure households – and where they were used, food banks were found not to reduce experiences of food poverty. We are at a critical juncture in Scotland and should carefully consider the implications of developing the infrastructure of surplus food redistribution at the expense of pursuing more sustainable and socially just solutions.

Mary Anne MacLeod, Research Officer at the Poverty Alliance and PhD candidate at Glasgow University

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