Christmas and charities go hand in hand. This year, given the issues of health and diet thrown up by Covid-19(CV), there should perhaps be a greater focus on food poverty in the UK. The Times newspaper Christmas Appeal is involving FareShare, the UK’s largest charity tackling food waste: FareShare saves surplus food and delivers it to people in food need. This year all in the UK have perhaps been more conscious of the numbers of children going without, and who are hungry some of the time. Fortunately, the UK does not face the problems that many low income countries face, children dying of hunger in vast numbers.
Child hunger is a cause espoused by Marcus Rashford, the footballer, and his work has brought forward real action. There is today a greater understanding that free school meals are important, as has long been recognised by governments through the free school meals scheme, and it is a pity it became so politicised this year. It is also important not to lose sight of the primary responsibility of the two parents of a child to ensure they are fed, while it is correctly the duty of the rest of society to care in a decent way for those who cannot help themselves.
Inspired by Marcus Rashford, Alex Ferguson announced a joint fund of up to £2million with his friend Michael Moritz, from which they would match every pound of reader donations to FareShare through the Times appeal. Such acts are to be welcomed from those who are among the wealthiest in society. There are also numerous less publicised acts of generosity, small and large, taking place throughout communities to alleviate food need. But there is a contribution which all individuals can make towards relieving food poverty without even spending, and in fact saving, money – reduction of food waste.
The Times of 1 December highlighted the waste of millions of tonnes of edible food each year in the UK, according to which some 20% of each crop of a particular farm fails to meet the standards of shape and size demanded by supermarkets and wholesale buyers: that surplus, fresh and nutritious, is ploughed into the fields, sent to landfill, or used for animal feed or biofuel. That story could be repeated hundreds of times around the UK. FareShare seeks to help growers distribute that food to frontline charities and other groups for distribution into communities in need. Last year FareShare reportedly provided 57 million meals. That surplus is part of the waste at pre farm gate.
On the wider picture of waste, WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) estimates that some 10 million tonnes (each tonne being 1000 kilos!) of post-farm gate food is wasted each year in the UK, worth over £20 billion. In discussion on waste a strong focus often falls on food which supermarkets have left over, not sold to the public. This is a large amount. For example, Tesco reports that for 2019/2020 it generated nearly 78,000 tonnes, and that 37,000 tonnes of that was redistributed to people via charities and the like, or for animal feed. That is a small proportion of the 10 million tonnes. Assuming other supermarkets act similarly, it is a big aggregate figure but not the biggest waste contributor.
The most food waste is generated by households, the consumers, being estimated at 70% of the 10 million tonnes. Independent research indicates that the average household throws away nearly £356 of food each year, worth nearly £10 billion in total. There will always be waste, but does it have to be this much?
EACH INDIVIDUAL CAN CONTRIBUTE
It is clear that UK consumers buy far too much, and waste too much. Controlling and reducing that amount of waste is therefore largely in the hands of the consumer, through their choices. They can of course be helped by some improvements in food selection, marketing, packaging and sales practices of food retailers, especially supermarkets, and by regulation which is the province of the UK Government (UKGOV). However, regulation does perhaps rarely induce cultural change: this is better brought about by communication and persuasion, that is education. A consumer may change approach if benefits are understood and they buy into it.
As for pre farm gate waste of the kind referred to earlier in this article, there are apparently no reliable figures on how much is wasted, but WRAP believes that is the second largest source of edible food waste after UK households.
UKGOV has set a target to eliminate food waste to landfill by 2030 and supports various initiatives. Also, UKGOV can provide and does provide a funding framework for supporting those in need, including Universal Credit and free school meals, and of course it can be argued that the State should increase the amounts of benefits. How cash benefits are spent is a matter for the recipient, and, where children are concerned, the parents; and again, it should be remembered that the primary responsibility for feeding a child rests with the two parents, with arguably wider family and the community having a secondary responsibility. In addition, however, where parents act irresponsibly or are simply incapable of feeding a child, society rightly should not penalise, but has to care for, the child who is dependent. Reducing household waste and ensuring food surplus reaches the most food needy, especially hungry children, cannot be a project directed in detail from central Government as it has no local knowledge: is this not one for local authorities and local communities and perhaps businesses, such as food retailers, and charities such as FareShare? Education has, as ever, a major part to play – perhaps on topics like what to eat, how to shop for a household, how to budget, how to use leftovers are simple examples.
Sherbhert champions eating locally and seasonally, and healthily. One reason for that is economic and to reduce waste. The excesses of Christmas are notorious. Perhaps Christmas 2020, when CV has pointed the spotlight on obesity, and food poverty, could be when the approach to excess adapts, and the waste, as well as the waist, is reduced. The outcome largely does rest with each individual considering carefully and making good choices.