Our current food system is extremely wasteful- in fact food waste is built into how many large food businesses and supermarkets operate. In recent years surplus food created through this wasteful system has increasingly been channelled to food support services, such as food banks and food clubs like Eggcup. Initially this seems to be a neat solution- reducing waste issues for food businesses and providing more affordable food for those who need it most. In the short term surplus food redistribution has worked as a small but ineffective (and increasingly fragile) sticking plaster covering up larger underlying issues around poverty.
Redistribution of surplus also does nothing to address the systemic issues that lead to so much food waste being produced in the first place. The need to overproduce food to meet contracts is detrimental to both our environment and to food producers. It is becoming increasingly challenging to run smaller-scale farming businesses. A 2010 study found that one in four farming families in the UK lived in poverty and farming incomes for small farms continue to be squeezed. Food producers should receive a fair income for food produced and people should have the money needed to make their own food choices.
A reliance on surplus to feed people has created a fragile and unpredictable food support system. This can be seen with increasing competition for edible food surplus from ‘energy from waste’ schemes such as anaerobic digestion (AD). AD breaks down food waste and other organic materials. This process releases biogas that can be used to generate electricity. AD is currently heavily subsidised by the UK government resulting in the formation of a huge industry that requires food waste to exist. The AD industry can afford to pay food businesses for their edible food waste and offers a more financially rewarding alternative to providing surplus for redistribution. It was recently reported that 150 million meals a year were being redirected to AD rather than to people. Whilst surplus food is not the answer to poverty, it is wrong that edible food is being turned into energy rather than feeding people.
It is becoming increasingly more challenging to access surplus as food businesses look to reduce food waste across their operations. Coupled with increasing demand for food support this is resulting in huge reductions in the amount of surplus organisations like Eggcup are able to access via national food redistribution networks such as the charity Fareshare. By building a food support system that is reliant on food waste, we’ve created a fragile system which is now showing the strain. Surplus food is becoming a limited, valued resource with many people in competition for it and we come to realise that by relying on surplus we risk ending up in a place of scarcity.. Ultimately, it is the poorest in our society that suffer as the food aid they have come to rely on, in the absence of an adequate welfare system, becomes less available.
Food waste cannot solve poverty- neither should exist in the first place. Research has shown that using surplus to address food insecurity (caused by poverty) can further entrench the need for food support organisations. It distracts us from the real issue of why our society does not provide the social security net that would mean that everyone has enough money to choose what they eat and how they access it. It shifts the responsibility for ensuring that people are able to access affordable food from the government, to charities and volunteers. Everyone has the right to healthy, sustainable and culturally appropriate food. It’s up to the government to ensure this right is met.
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This is a welcome article. Our systems are totally broken and no one in power is interested in fixing it. We are not responsible – the capitalists are – yet we have irresistible power in numbers if only we pulled together and raised our voice in unison.