Government, the food industry and foodbanks. Who’s taking the biscuit?

Foodbank collections are increasingly commonplace. We see them in the workplace, schools, concerts, sporting events and shopping outlets, with the public kindly donating food items, sometimes plucked from the pantry at home or bought especially on the weekly grocery shop. Either way these donations are gratefully received by foodbanks. Most donations are given by the general public enabling foodbanks to hand out free emergency provisions to people in crisis.

The UK has seen a considerable rise in charitable emergency food provisioning in recent years, with figures at record levels. From April to September 2015 The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest foodbanking organisation, distributed 506,369 food parcels compared to 492,641 in the same time period in 2014.

There are various stakeholders in these foodbank collections, as Riches and Silvasti argue this then invites the question, who is actually benefitting from food charity?

dsc_5429Fig. 1 AFC Unity (2015)
AFC Unity are a football team from who collect foodbank donations at their home games.

Government

Many observers(i) link the recent rise of charitable emergency food provisioning in the UK to the current era of welfare reform, which stems from the economic crisis of 2008. In response to the crisis the UK Government embraced neo-liberal ideology and implemented austerity measures(ii) pushing their ‘big society’ rhetoric, shifting practical responses from public services to charitable initiatives; constructing hunger as a primary matter for charity. Foodbanks offer support now that the Government has removed the welfare safety net.

In her book Sweet Charity? Janet Poppendieck discusses welfare systems, voluntarism and private charity in relation to emergency food provisioning in the US. She describes how charitable endeavours normalise destitution and legitimatise ‘personal generosity, as a response to major social and economic dislocation’, enabling governments to shed responsibility for the poor.

Food Industry

As outlined by Poppendieck we have seen an expansion of emergency food provisioning in North America, from community initiatives, such as local church responses, to the corporatisation of foodbanks by the food industry. Graham Riches outlines the global scope of foodbanking and explains how food corporations such as Nestlé and Kraft have board representatives in national foodbank organisations. He further discusses how foodbanks can act as economic exercises, not only for government as a prop-up mechanism for inefficient welfare systems, but also for the food industry as, for example, ways to intercept edible food which would otherwise be wasted, or to further their cause related marketing and corporate social responsibility programs.

Simon Robinson states that Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) “generally refers to the belief that corporations have responsibilities that transcend their own narrow economic self-interests”. Peggy Bronn and Albana Vrioni outline CSR as a pro-social agenda used in marketing, which in turn is labelled as Cause Related Marketing (CRM). CRM is widely used to increase brand switching, customer loyalty, build reputation and grow market shares by actively increasing customers’ perceptions of how they purport to help causes or charities. It is a tool used to differentiate similar brands through a range of marketing actions such as promotion of their cause affiliations; to add value to a brand and boost finances.

CVXnwQDWsAEL9hlFig. 2 Twitter Stockport Foodbank, Great first day @Tesco #stockport with this donation all from ONE person! (2015)
Tesco Neighbourhood Food Collection, Stockport

The food drive campaign Neighbourhood Food Collection (NFC) is included as part of Tesco’s Corporate Social Responsibility program and pushed as part of their Cause Related Marketing. The NFC campaign has been held at Tesco stores nationwide since 2012, encouraging customers to buy long-life food from Tesco and donate it to their ‘charity partners’ via in-store collections. The charity partners in this case are the Trussell Trust and Fareshare.  As previously outlined the Trussell Trust is a foodbanking organisation, and Fareshare is a charity who intercept surplus food that would otherwise be wasted, then send it to charitable organisations, including foodbanks. Food drives like the NFC provide an efficient mechanism to solicit donations. Other supermarkets also enable collections for independent foodbanks.

Foodbanks

As Hannah Lambie-Mumford outlines in her PhD thesis, as the need for emergency food provisioning has increased, so has the public’s demonstration of generosity and care, but maintaining food donation levels remains a key challenge. Whilst supermarket collections act as efficient tools for foodbanks, they are vulnerable to the competitive nature of the food retail industry and their marketing strategies. One has to question the power dynamics within this relationship and address concerns with regards to stability. Supermarkets act as a prominent mechanism to solicit donations, but there is no permanence in these arrangements which are agreed upon a medium or short term basis, to be reviewed and open to reconsideration.

Nonetheless, we can see a real compassionate response from the general public, facilitating the collections and distributing foodbank donations.  Regardless of this care shown, foodbanks are still at risk of running out of provisions, as recently seen at Medway Foodbank. These donations are ultimately gifts, no one is legally entitled to them and there is no control over the volume or appropriateness of the donated items. Supermarkets have the power to cease or change their charitable arrangements as they see fit. Clearly this is an unstable and unsustainable solution to emergency food provisioning.

numbers-helped-2015Fig. 3 Numbers given 3 day’s emergency food by Trussell Trust foodbanks (2015)

Solution

Wealthy nations are increasingly relying on foodbanks to feed hungry people. It is alarming that in food secure, rich countries like the UK we find hunger and food poverty. UK food, social and public policy is severely failing and undermining food justice. The Right to Food is not an entitlement protected by the UK Government, but it can offer a framework for a sustainable approach to food security, with government taking the central role in coordinating action. Each one of us has the Right to Food, as outlined in the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is time for this right to be respected, protected and fulfilled as a primary responsibility of government, and not left at the feet of individuals, charities and businesses to address the problem of hunger in the UK.

(i) Hannah Lambie-Mumford, Janet Poppendieck, Graham Riches, Tina Silvasti

(ii) Austerity measures being welfare upheaval and cuts to public spending.

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6 thoughts on “Government, the food industry and foodbanks. Who’s taking the biscuit?

  1. I find this very interesting. It is important to also look at the role of Nonprofit organizations that sometimes participate in managing food banks. Also, because Food banks are not only in developed nations, but also, they are implemented in developing countries like South Africa (http://www.foodbanksa.org/) and Uganda (http://www.isn.ethz.ch/Digital-Library/Publications/Detail/?ots591=0c54e3b3-1e9c-be1e-2c24-a6a8c7060233&lng=en&id=188544). The model of food banks where the World Food Programme (WFP) or other humanitarian organizations have adopted food banks to respond to hunger in crises and conflicts.
    I think Food Banks should be seen as a temporary response in the vision of addressing responses to hunger because at the end they are a kind of direct assistance that does not provide a sustainable resource of livelihoods for the people. Wealthy nations have the capacity to address the root causes of hunger more effectively by building the capacity of these vulnerable people to sustain their livelihoods.

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