By Michael Shields, Changing Lives’ General Manager – Fareshare North East and York

I attended the recent All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger and Food Poverty inquiry on behalf of Fareshare North East and York*, part of Changing Lives, with a view of hearing and providing some evidence relating to the extent and causes of hunger. We would also discuss the provisions to alleviate food poverty and also try and learn any lessons from abroad in terms of tackling the problem.

On reflection, at the All-Party inquiry, it was disappointing however to note that most of the tackles were quite late. What I mean by that is that there was little focus upon organisations addressing the first stage reasons for hunger and more on dealing with the last stage symptoms. Yes, cooking skills were mentioned as an obstacle to overcome and benefit sanctions as a cause, but little else was said regarding tackling the many earlier stage underlying causes – homelessness, employability, fleeing domestic violence, drug and alcohol addiction – to name but a few. Unsurprisingly therefore, the phrase ‘sticking plaster’ was used on several occasions.

The theme continued with the almost constant terms of ‘food bank’  and ‘food parcels’ being used and the debate failed to extend the focus to include the long term hungry. Don’t get me wrong, food banks form a part of FareShare’s customer base and they do an incredible job in terms of solving the short term problem of hunger within their locality. Without them, many vulnerable people would go hungry and at times they also offer additional advice and support and signpost clients to other organisations for additional help. However, the debate did not really explore other effective ways to address the problem other than the food bank route. Isn’t it also necessary to consider the long term hungry? The media seem to focus upon the one-off cases when an unexpected bill has arrived and the family purse is squeezed and from a FareShare perspective this is frustrating.

Most of the projects supported by FareShare do not have food provision as their core objective – instead they offer other services to support their client groups and food is used as a both a form of engagement as well as its primary purpose – to feed. The longer term root causes to hunger are therefore addressed when our projects collectively feed their 2,600 clients each week with our food. This tried and tested model requires expansion and should this happen it can sit alongside food banks and tackle the hunger problem that was often referred to as a scandal and a sad reflection on UK society during the inquiry.

Food Poverty is also a problem within other highly developed nations. In Germany it is reported that 1.5 million turn to food banks each month and perhaps we can look overseas for at least a further partial solution. In France, 20 times as much food is redirected to the voluntary sector than in the UK. Perfectly good food used to feed the nation’s hungry from a country with a comparable population and food industry to the UK. Frank Field MP pointed out that currently only 2% of commercial food waste is provided to food distribution charities in the UK, whilst the remainder is used for energy, composted or placed in landfill. In the current  economic climate, no good food should be wasted, particularly when food banks are dependent on the kindness of individuals buying food on their behalf.

Upon closer inspection this isn’t so surprising. Financial incentives are available for organisations to send food for the purpose of anaerobic digestion but not for food distribution. (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/jul/04/food-bank-britain-can-mps-agree-causes-uk-poverty). Surely feeding people should be at the top of this hierarchy.

3.9 Million Tonnes of food is wasted by what is in relative terms an efficient food industry in the UK.

My main contribution to the debate was to call upon the Committee to push for tax breaks for food organisations to incentivise them to donate their surplus food to the voluntary sector.

The report from the enquiry is due out at the end of this year.

For more information about Fareshare, please visit: www.fareshare.org.uk

To contact Michael, please email michael.shields@changing-lives.org.uk

*FareShare is a national UK charity which supports communities to relieve food poverty by working with a network of local partners, including Changing Lives in the North East and York, to address food poverty and food waste. Good quality surplus food is re-distributed via local community groups, including food banks, to address this growing problem. In the North East alone, FareShare received 223 tonnes of food in the last year from the food industry, 85% of which was surplus. We currently supply over 70 groups with food, which in turn provide food to 2,600 vulnerable people each week.