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Introducing Good Food Aid Standards

Recently, the number of people using food banks were said to have increased substantially. In Wales alone, the use of food banks is up by 14% on previous estimates. Throughout the UK, the issue of poverty and how it is to be tackled is the biggest single social issue we face.

‘Hungry children struggle to learn and play, hungry adults struggle to cope with the pressures that poverty brings.’

Within this struggle, it is incumbent on the public and third sectors to do much more than add to the pressures people face. Food banks and their structure is a valuable resource, providing points of contact and some measure of security to vulnerable people. However, Food aid is now an industry. Led by charities who have chosen a route similar to the food-aid movement in the USA – notably becoming the recipient of large-scale funding and waste food provided by private sector food companies. [1] This approach means, without further need for clarification, that food-aid has become institutionalised. It’s a model that’s favoured by government, promoted by charities, supported by the press and, as a consequence, largely trusted by a well-meaning but misinformed, public.

Alongside this growth of food aid charity, the growth of food poverty has been exponential with one continuum throughout;  the food offer has remained very poor. Originally, the concept of food-aid was designed to be a stop-gap, available to assist hungry/vulnerable people to get over a short crisis. Now the provision is expected to do much more than fill a gap. It is now about supporting people for much longer periods. For many people, poverty has become a forced lifestyle with food-aid required to play an integral role in their lives.  Food-aid therefore, should always be about feeding people well – it should be about equality of standards and it most definitely should be about protecting peoples’ health.

Food banks are, by their very name, purveyors of food. The growth of the model determines that it operates like a business, masked behind the badge of charity. Food banks trade their services into communities, drawing from a supply chain that includes masses of food from the private supply chain.  It is therefore fair to ask food banks, and the logistics that serve them, to adhere to food standards – food standards that protect the health and wellbeing of the most vulnerable people in the UK.

So far, food standards as they exist, are ignored by the food bank structure and the public sector appear to sanction this, in order to facilitate a poor-food service that is at least ‘doing something’ to feed hungry people. The poorest people therefore, have no choice other than to eat the poorest food the modern food industry can serve up. No longer can this ‘doing something’ attitude suffice and no longer can the health and wellbeing of those deemed to be poor, be undermined. The whole food aid landscape needs to change to move beyond a service delivery that is about quantity over quality and into a service that is truly about good food for all. Introducing/implementing food-aid food standards would an important step in the right direction.

There is no doubt we face another decade of food aid and with the past 10 years to reference, it is only right and fair to those who will need to access it that the food offered to them is improved and protected. Too much of the past debate has been emotive and about ignoring the facts. It is, therefore, time for the food-aid movement to start to self-regulate and to want to feed people well.

Much has been written about the need for policy changes to benefits and rightly so, but they will not happen without a change of government and even then, it could take years. People are hungry and need good food, it is not fair or just to keep them waiting when solutions are available. The next step requires leadership from those in leadership positions and it requires focused attention upstream and into government to extract achievable change that has a chance to improve the indignity people face when hungry.

Below we’ve begun our list of food-aid standards we want to be implemented across all food aid offered in the UK (there are others to add). We’re inviting you, the reader, whatever your involvement is with the food-aid sector, to add to this list through the comments section below or using the hashtag #FoodAid and at @foodpoverty. Let us know what improvements you want to see, and as we develop the campaign, help us to protect the health and welfare of millions currently going hungry.

We’ve started the list below – our standards relate to the food only – transport and storage are already covered in by existing standards for business.

  • Food-aid should cater for cultural differences and dietary requirements
  • Food-aid should remove the use of tinned meats
  • Food-aid should remove the use of any end-of-date products
  • Food-aid should supply fresh fruit and vegetables
  • Food-aid parcels should always be able to provide nutritious family meals, and to help facilitate this
  • Refrigeration should be available at all food-aid outlet

Taking steps to create good food aid standards is something that can be done now. It is time to design a service that puts the hungry person first – the list we have started here, can already be provided if the food aid sector chooses to take part, so there is no block from a delivery point of view. However, to date, the same food aid sector chooses not to – maybe the next 12 months will see a positive change?

[1] ASDA donated £20m to FareShare and Trussell Trust to expand food aid provision.

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