Food prices in Britain have risen by 32% in five years, causing more and more people to turn to foodbanks as they choose whether to “heat or eat”. The Trussell trust had 1 food bank in 2004, 50 in 2009 and 255 now, making the charity’s 2016 target of 500 look decidedly cautious.
Stephen Timms, shadow work and pensions secretary, said its a “pretty worrying reflection of what’s going on in the country, when people are dependent on charitable handouts.
“My worry is that we are really just at the start of cutting back the benefits system and already a large number of people are not able to buy food for their families. This shouldn’t be happening on the scale that it is.”
London charity FareShare distributes food to 700 UK foodbanks and saw a 42% rise in demand in 2011. Spokeswoman Maria Olesen said of the increase: “We need more supplies to give to these charities so they can provide food to an increasing number of people.”
How will we meet this demand?
FareShare receives food binned by supermarkets and catering companies but otherwise is reliant on donations from the general public. But it’s hard to imagine how long this altruistic funding will last in an age of dwindling disposable incomes and rising applications for emergency accommodation.
It’s estimated that UK supermarkets annually generate 300,000 tonnes of waste but at the moment Sainsbury’s is the only store which publishes its waste data so it’s hard to approximate how much food is actually being squandered.
The role of supermarkets
A Fabian Society report earlier this year recommended more transparency and advised supermarkets to track and publish their food waste performance to help reduce the £12bn worth of food thats annually binned. The report also highlighted that UK families averagely waste £13 per week on food which was attributed to BOGOF deals and a lack of meal planning.
The report’s author Nathan Doran called for more awareness about individual and organisational food waste: “What’s the point of a public engagement campaign to lower household food waste if supermarkets can chuck vast amounts of food out at the end of each day?”
The legalities of donating food
Marks and Spencer and Pret a Manger reportedly give sandwiches to the homeless when they close but most of their food goes into a skip, landfill or compost heap. Supermarkets claim that if they donate food it might go past the expiry date, making them liable for food poisoning, a threat that could be avoided if the UK had a similar law to America’s Bill Emerson Act.
The Bill Emerson Food Donation act protects the donor and recipient against liability and provides protection for food that meets all quality and labelling standards even though it may not be “readily marketable due to appearance, age, freshness, grade, size, surplus or other conditions.”
Multi-functional food waste
But even if new legislation was introduced foodbanks would still face competition for their supplies. Supermarket food is a valuable commodity for the rise of anaerobic digestion plants that turn waste food into renewable energy and the “grey market” of online retailers who buy superficially damaged food before selling it on cheaply.
Foodbank critics have also remarked that every homeless person can find a skip but if supermarket food is centralised for distribution it will become harder to locate and they instead advocate the criminalisation of ruining food before dumping it.
David Cameron is speaking repeatedly of a big society but doesn’t really seem capable of providing for one as services move beyond the realms of state provision and nutrition becomes charity rather than basic state support.