Food banks risk being 'captured' by corporate PR drive, say activists

Letter by 58 campaigners and academics says corporate approach is a ‘sticking plaster’

The UK food bank movement has been warned it is in danger of being “captured” by big corporations and supermarket chains that promote high-profile partnerships with charities as effective ways of solving hunger and food waste.

A letter to the Guardian from 58 academics and campaigners criticises the way corporations and some charities frame food poverty as a logistical problem of how to distribute surplus food to people in poverty rather than a social justice issue.

It states: “At the heart of [the] approach [to tackling food poverty] must be a guarantee of the human right to adequate food and nutrition: living wages, income security and a fit for purpose welfare system, not ‘leftover’ food for ‘left behind’ people.”

It calls the growth of charity food aid in developed countries such as the UK and the US “a sticking plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality” that undermines the humanity and dignity of its recipients.

There is no evidence charity solves food insecurity, it says, adding: “However, food banking does benefit the reputations of Big Food and supermarket chains as good corporate citizens while distracting attention away from low wages paid to their workers.”

Signatories to the letter include the former UN rapporteur on the right to food Olivier de Schutter, the food policy expert Prof Tim Lang of City, University of London, and Prof Janet Poppendieck, the author of the classic study of food aid in the US, Sweet Charity.

The letter, which will reignite a simmering debate within the UK voluntary sector about how it should respond to soaring demand for emergency food caused by rising poverty, is timed to coincide with the annual conference of the Global Foodbanking Network (GFN), held this week in London.

GFN supports projects worldwide that redistribute to charities surplus and waste food donated by industry and supermarkets that would otherwise go to landfill or to feed farm animals. It says this model of food charity – which is known as food banking in the US – is both “green” and “a proven solution for nourishing communities”.

The US-based organisation is predominantly funded by corporate donors including Pepsico, Unilever and Kellogg’s. The Tesco chief executive, Dave Lewis, who is speaking at the conference, said food redistribution charities “play a crucial role in tackling global hunger and reducing food waste”.

GFN’s chief executive, Lisa Moon, rejected criticism that treating food insecurity as primarily a logistics problem ignored poverty and inequality. “The food bank model is uniquely positioned to address the paradox of global hunger and food waste,” she said.

The rise in charitable food aid in the UK over the past decade, from a handful of food banks in 2009 to more than 2,000 amid rising food insecurity, has led to fears charities are being coopted as an unofficial branch of the state to cover for welfare cuts and increasing economic insecurity for the lowest paid.

The UK charity FareShare, which is a GFN member and whose corporate partners include the food and catering companies Sodexo and Cargill, says its staff and volunteers distribute surplus food to more than 10,000 charities from day centres to domestic violence refuges, enabling them to provide about 775,000 meals a week to vulnerable people.

“We save these organisations more than £27m a year at a time when many of them are struggling to keep their services going in the face of severe local authority budget cuts,” said the FareShare chief executive, Lindsay Boswell.

He added: “The real scandal, and the academics and others would be more useful if they focused on this, is that only 6% of the food that is fit for human consumption and is surplus is diverted to organisations like FareShare.”

The UK’s biggest food bank network, the Trussell Trust, said it had decided not to attend the GFN conference because it said organisation’s message and approach did not “align with our vision of a UK without poverty or hunger and its aim to create a future without food banks”.

The Trussell Trust attracted criticism after accepting a £9m grant from Asda last year – its other corporate partners include Tesco, Waitrose and Unilever. Its chief executive, Emma Revie, said corporate sponsorship would not stop the charity from “speaking truth to power”.

Last year the environment secretary, Michael Gove, announced a £15m fund to support food distribution charities, including FareShare, saying it was “morally indefensible” that each year 100,000 tonnes of “perfectly edible food” was wasted.

Sabine Goodwin, the coordinator of the Independent Food Aid Network, said: “Food banking is not something to be celebrated, despite the good will and generosity of the many volunteers and donors filling a growing gap in the here and now. The fact that charitable food aid is needed at all must remain unacceptable.”


Patrick Butler Social policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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