A Third Sector Plan to Instiutionalise Food Poverty

We sit within the third sector. We do so because for 11 years we have worked tirelessly to offer good food solutions in deprived areas. In 11 years we have taught over 14,000 people to cook, delivered fresh food services into schools, nurseries and care homes and, importantly in the context of this blog, we have given away 35,000 free, fresh meals to people going hungry in 2017. This is all frontline stuff. Working with children, parents, grandparents, in short; everyone in and working around food poverty.

It is the work that has given us vast experience into people’s eating habits and choices. It is the work that drives our good food model, it is also the work that drives our campaigning. We have campaigned for years to stop the poor food model that is currently the only offer available to most in food poverty. In the first couple of years, we campaigned quietly – getting people around tables, agreeing, disagreeing, producing position papers, arranging conferences all in the hope that we would agree that good food was a better option for hungry people. At the time everyone who attended the conferences (165 organisations) agreed (including the Trussell/ Fareshare reps), but when it came to doing something about it, they all backed off. 3 years on and our campaigning has become that much more targeted, naming organisations who frankly have only their own agenda, trying to get an alternative dialogue going against to the poor food dialogue that dominates the food poverty agenda right across England and Wales. We see campaigning as the cornerstone of all that we do. As campaigners it is so important to tell the truth as we see it, as we have researched it, as we have worked it. Truth that is based on fact and drawn from feeding thousands of people who are both hungry and in need of support. Our campaigns therefore are about representation; representing those who are stuck in austerity with too few options to take them anywhere else. Last week this role to represent took on real focus; a focus that initially generated anger, a focus that gave us further impetus to push harder against those who are hell-bent on making sure that we will always have a food aid system that they can push their poor food into – food that is cast off by a system that has no commercial use for it, food that is so random and processed that skilled chefs could not dig out a series of good meals from it. Ours is not to chirp from the side-lines, criticising. Our campaigning is about facts and the negative impact of poor food on poorer people. Our campaigning is about already having a sustainable solution to food poverty; a solution that positively brings institutions together and only supplies good food to the people who need it.

Anyway, scene set, now onto what made us angry and onto what should make everyone angry if your aim is social justice for those who are blighted by the stress of hunger.

Food poverty is a very emotive subject full of faith, hope, charity and the acts of volunteers who work so hard to make a difference. Because of this you should never criticise the efforts of those involved…after all, lives are being saved and people have found purpose in their volunteering activities – activities that have been the savour of many a church/community group or even big charity. We note this upfront as not to denigrate the efforts of volunteers who are working hard (we know of lots who do) but to lay bare the complexity now in-built into the whole food poverty movement. Careers depend on it, community groups are thriving because of it and all manner of others are spending their time trying to get in on the act. It is activity that is bound together by the regular and sweeping statements from all the actors and all the players involved; statements such as ‘we should not have to be here, we are here to stop food poverty, put ourselves out of business, that’s the plan.’ It’s a decent plan to have under the circumstances. However, the evidence of the last 8 years or so points in a different direction? We have seen poor waste food being recycled as if it was good, rolling out on a larger scale, feeding people badly as it goes along. Then last week, maybe the final nail in the coffin of the ‘we should not have to be here plan’, came the announcement that Trussell Trust and Fareshare have struck a £20m deal to expand their poor food models to anywhere that will take them.

Three years ago, we raised the topic of food poverty becoming institutionalised in the UK with the Trussell Trust becoming the key actor in an ‘institutionalised-plan’. At the time, our thinking was swayed after hearing the former CEO of Trussell declare that he wanted to see the organisation become the ‘McDonalds-of-food-poverty’. Around the same time, the CEO of Fareshare was saying something quite different in front of public audiences. His position was ‘Fareshare was not a food poverty organisation but a food waste organisation’. At first glance there is something of a conflict going on within the two statements with no immediate match up. But then take a step back and dig a little deeper – what you’ll find is a meeting of organisational minds. One wanted growth and needed more supply. The other also wanted growth and needed somewhere to deposit all of its food waste – a good marriage all of a sudden – more of this later.

Canada and the USA have been playing this food waste for poor people game for decades with mountains of proof that it does not work and lets the state off in its responsibility to care for people. It is a deeply flawed model. A model Fareshare and Trussell have followed with real purpose, culminating last week in announcing their news to partner with Walmart to maximise their growth plans. Walmart – the very company known to exploit their employees, many of whom are paid so poorly that they too rely on food handouts. The company that has done more than most to institutionalise food poverty in the USA. It’s immoral, but hey – clearly to some this is just business as usual, so why does this really matter?

It matters because the model is proven to keep people in poverty and it matters because it is proven that such models become little more than an industrial supply chain that pushes its waste and costs onto others, pretending to do otherwise. And it matters because all this is ably abetted by charity.

The intellectual Cornel West once said “Justice is what love looks like in public.” To achieve love in a food context surely it is about health and choice. Yet the exact opposite is on offer by the Trussell and Fareshare. So how can anyone be okay with randomised, mostly unhealthy, food as the only offer to people who are already having their self worth stripped by an evil benefits system or crap pay for a hard days work? Of course, there is an argument that at least some of the food they supply is fine for use and whilst there is lots of waste that is equally fine because at least the some food will feed some people. Well, sorry the argument doesn’t stack up. To back up this point lets inform you, as the reader, of what we found after paying for the Fareshare service for 6 months.

We have a full audit of all foods delivered to us. Of the foodstuff delivered, the parcel
ranged from kinder eggs and chocolate/biscuit items of all kinds (that we refused but they still turned up), loads of bread items onto useful items such as prawns and gammon joints that we could use because we are food producer. But here are the stark figures, for every delivery we received over the period we worked with Fareshare, the average value of the items delivered was £102.21 but the average waste cost (food we could not use and we needed to dispose of) was £62.40. Remember that we have a team of trained chefs on staff, with a combined kitchen experience of over 100 years between them. Yet we still had to dispose of 60% of all goods delivered. We can only estimate from our experience how much food the average Fareshare recipient must waste each and every time they receive their random delivery as most don’t have chefs. Fareshare brands itself as a charity having the objectives of ‘fighting hunger and food waste’, but figures say they are mostly passing that waste on to community centres or to be wasted by households going hungry, therefore accomplishing neither of its aforementioned objectives – so what have Walmart bought into and why?

As already noted, it’s a North American model and across the Atlantic there is real expertise in these poor-food-corporate-buy-in-approaches.

One expert who set up the STOP in Canada (look it up if you don’t know it) said last week…

“Let’s not conflate a food waste strategy with a poverty reduction strategy. It’s destructive to do so. Are we saying the poor among us are only worthy of the castoffs of the industrial food system – the majority of which is unhealthy food, laden with fat, sugar and salt which increases the risk of diet related diseases? There is no question we can and must do better than this as a society.”

Wise words. Words worthy of major consideration, unless you are wanting to get as close as you can to the food industrial complex, unless your intentions are about growth over poverty; unless you are Trussell or Fareshare.

10 days ago, we wrote a blog about changing the story of food poverty, ending that blog with its not too late to change – if the intention was to create a good food system for people who are hungry. Last week changed everything. Last week’s Walmart love-in said to everyone who cares about these matters – food poverty in the UK will become as it is in North America. A service done at pace and all on the back of volunteers, except for those jobs in the management tiers of Fareshare/Trussell, who of course are needed to co-ordinate the logistics of this deeply flawed and deeply immoral model.

A good company is measured not by how it behaves in public when things are going good but how it behaves when things are not so good, and they are in the glare of scrutiny. So here is our experience of both organisations about things that have not gone well.

After carrying our own practice-based research (partly noted above) into their operational models, we approached them both, sometimes meeting with management teams raising our concerns about their poor food models, providing strong evidence. In response, both steadfastly defended their poor food model (offering the most bizarre reasons for their offer of poor food), both reacted with disdain, and this is important, simply ignored all feedback. Now what is interesting here is that we have a food expertise that both Fareshare and Trussell don’t have, we are a food organisation first, with a significant track record in feeding people well in deprived areas. They cared not one bit. For them it was all about logistics and the movement of as much poor food as they could muster. This paragraph is worth noting because it lets you into the psyche of the charities in play here. For them, it’s always been about growth over product and there is no evidence to declare anything to the contrary.

There is ongoing campaign End Hunger that has gathered all of the national players around one table looking to create a model that, as the title suggests, ends hunger. Around that table Trussel and Fareshare sit as the proud supply chain of most of the infrastructure of poor food that gives the campaign the oxygen to exist. It is a campaign that has made some decent recommendations about policy change and has routes to government that can influence. There is no doubt that some around the table care. Now though, the dynamics of that table have changed and there is a big new corporate elephant in the room. An elephant so big that it could distort the whole picture quickly and forever. Moreover, if we look across again to North America, this elephant will do all it can to foist its poor-food options so deep that in just a few years’ time it will be impossible to extract it even if there was a want to do so. Let’s be clear here, if anyone thinks Walmart are going to invest £20million without influence they should not be anywhere near any sort of decision making.

So rounding all this up, and back to the marriage of Trussell and Fareshare, and not forgetting the role of the wider third sector:-

We believe there was unrest in the staff camps of Trussell and Farshare about the Walmart deal, but it still went ahead. In doing the deal, Trussel and Fareshare have declared their hand. Walmart are their partners and they are wedded to growth and poor-food just as their contemporaries working with Walmart are doing are across the Atlantic. Now they may have sold this to their UK food poverty partners (End Hunger and others) as this is a good deal for all involved. After all, more food banks, more poor food, more volunteers, what’s there not to like? We can imagine them saying…’Yes there is going to be a bit of noise about Walmart, but that will die down and then let’s think about all those poor people we can help and those new initiatives we can all create off the back of the big new supply chain of poor food.’ If this, or something like this, has/is being said and this sort of thing is allowed, bought into if you like, then everyone in the supply chain of this Walmart deal will be complicit and no amount of reworking or dressing this up will suffice. Get into bed with Walmart and you will be part of institutionalising food poverty in the UK – no doubt, no further discussion. Take a quick look at twitter to read how the complicity has started with some already starting to distort the argument by claiming food aid has always been institutionalised and what happened last week is merely part of what is already in place. It is an outrageous claim, unless of course you believe in the deal.

To finish, the third sector should seek to hold and operate to the highest standards, after all the safeguard is the health and wellbeing of vulnerable people. Given the involvement of Walmart and how both Fareshare and Trussell trust have done everything they can to spread their poor food model nationwide – it is fair that those standards have been compromised. Trying to remain somewhat fair, if the £20m the two organisations have now secured is used to;-

1. Make sure people have access to good fresh food by choice
2. Make sure no waste is passed on to community groups at their cost. Taking in only the food that can be used, leaving ASDA with costs of the rest and holding them to account and;
3. Make sure that volunteers get jobs, rather than just create more volunteer roles to roll out more food banks or distribution units

Then maybe, just maybe, there will be some good reason for this deal. But our experience of working with and watching Trussell and Fareshare operate is that the opposite will roll out – lets all wait and see eh?

It was useful to see IFAN stand their ground and raise their concerns. Now the door is open for others to follow. More importantly, it will be very interesting to see who over time buys in with the offer of some of the benefits of the £20m. In the long run, if many of the current food poverty entities do, the integrity of the sector will be threatened and the big losers will be the people hungry and still forced to take poor food handouts.

As we said in our last blog, there are already options and stronger routes to stopping hunger, let’s see what happens next?