‘Why SURPLUS food is important’ #WorldEnvironmentDay special

Juen 5th is Wolrd Environment Day. For the occasion, we are featuring #WorldEnvironmentDay specials on our blog in order to raise awareness on the role of food in environmental thinking in dedicated blog posts. The first blog, by Dr. Megan Blake (University of Sheffield), is on the importance of surplus food for feeding vulnerable people.

There have been a number of arguments in the press and on social media arguing that the use of surplus food to feed food insecure people is at best only a short-term solution and at worst harmful (e.g., Caraher 2017).  I would agree that the hunger that is caused by poverty is not only not being addressed by the UK government (see Blake 2015, and a more recent update of the article published by GMPA) but in some cases is being enhanced by current government policy (e.g., a benefits system that has built in delays, draconian sanctions, programme cuts that impact on the most vulnerable). In reading the argument, however, a number of issues stand out as needing further clarification and interrogation.  Firstly, there is a lack of understanding about food surplus in terms of what it is.  Secondly, there is misconception about how food surplus becomes food for bellies as it travels through the charity sector. Thirdly, there is an overly narrow understanding of the value of surplus food both for charities and those whom they support. These issues are explored in this blog post

What is surplus food?

In the process of producing the food that we purchase, food is also diverted from the commercial supply chain before it reaches a point of sale or at point of sale for a myriad of reasons.   For example, the unpredictability of the weather may lead a farmer to plan for risk-minimizing scenarios (e.g., low harvest and loss of quality in transportation) in order to ensure that contractual agreements with a retailer are met, then if there is a good year, and a crop is bigger than expected there is excess. This excess production becomes a surplus.  Supermarket contracts, which are made in advance of harvest, offer security to the farmer, but they are also based on exclusivity. As a result, the food produced in excess of the contract becomes food that is not sell-able.  It is still edible. The difference between the apple that is sent to the supermarket and the apple that is unsold in terms of its nutritional value is indiscernible. This is not the only scenario. Food also is excluded from the commercial system when the packaging, for example is not printed correctly or is the wrong colour or is damaged in transport. This is also surplus food.  Sometimes food may exit the commercial food chain because a retailer cancels or reduces an order after the producer has completed production. When volumes are large, producers sell this food to discount retailers who sell the items off cheaply, but in order to be profitable these chains require very large volumes. In such cases the food is rescued from becoming surplus by the discount stores.  In doing so this almost-surplus food becomes discount food.   It is not profitable for these stores to take small volumes, which may still be a lot of food, and as a result, the food remains part of the commercial food sector, but at the same time unsellable. It becomes surplus.

How is food surplus distributed to those in need?

Surplus food is saved from becoming food waste when it is redistributed from the commercial supply chain to people who can eat it.  The community support sector (e.g., voluntary organisations, social enterprises, community groups) are the most secure, safe and organised way that food insecure people can access surplus food in the UK.  The simplest, but least reliable in terms of supply and quality and the most time intensive for the community organistion is for the organisation to negotiate directly with the source of the surplus. Alternatively, organisations can use a redistribution supplier to access surplus food, such as FareShare, Plan Zhereos, City Harvest, among others. Food using organisations are the front line for distributing food to those in need.  We do not have a clear idea of the number of organisations who use food to support those in need in the UK as again data is not systematically collected. There is a widely held presumption that organisations that use surplus food to provide food to those in need do so through what has become understood to be the “foodbank model”.  This model involves giving those in need food parcels that are taken home to be cooked and eaten. Many organisation offer other food programmes and activities to a wider segment of the population, beyond those who have an emergency need, but who may still be food insecure.

What is the value of surplus food?

Surplus food provides great value to the organisations who receive this food as well as the people they serve.  Research with organisations accessing food through the FareShare network indicates that each week organisations save approximately $152 per week because they do not have to purchase food for their programmes (see the NATCEN research report).  These organisations also say that they can then use this savings to invest in other activities, staff and resources needed to support their communities or to continue to operate.  About one fifth of the organisations said that they would be forced to reduce the quality of the food they provided if the no longer were able to access surplus food and nearly just as many said they would no longer be able to operate at all if surplus food was no longer available.

Lets not throw the baby out with the bathwater

Surplus food is food that is still good food to eat, but for some–usually human produced– reason, has become surplus to the needs of the commercial food sector.  Community organisations that use surplus food also rely on other food sources to meet their organisation’s overall food needs including purchasing food and relying on donations.   Community organisations use surplus food in a variety of ways, often through a variety of projects, and often alongside other support services. Those who access this food experience important benefits from being able to eat this food that include nutritional and economic benefit, but also other social benefits.  Moreover these benefits also extend into their communities and British society more widely.

These benefits should not be interpreted as a free pass to government to ignore how its policies contribute to the causes of poverty or its role in creating divisions in communities. While surplus food in and of itself will not solve the problems of food poverty, its use by community organisations enables wellbeing and community resilience in ways that extend beyond the meal that it provides. Surplus food enables community organisations to support and maintain communities and the people within them in ways that are sensitive to the needs of those communities. At present the balance between what is the responsibility of the government and what can be better achieved through community involvement needs greater untangling.  As a nation, however, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water by rejecting the use of surplus food as a means for supporting community organisations who support vulnerable people.

This text has been originally published on GeoFoodieOrg blog by Dr. Megan Blake, Senior Lecturer at the University of Sheffield. Her research is concerned with the ways that everyday life, social institutions, and place help shape and inform the daily-life interactions and projects of individuals, reinforce social divisions, and enable or constrain access to resources. Her current research focuses on the role of place in shaping everyday food cultures and value arrangements and pays particular attention to issues of food fairness in urban food networks. You can find her as @GeoFoodieOrg or on WordPress at http://geofoodie.org

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