Decreased donations from retailers, who in turn face supply chain issues, have created a shortage of food for charity just as household bills rocket

As the cost of living crisis worsens, the UK faces the growing prospect of a winter of hunger. And food banks may be unable to step in.

This week, a series of food bank operators have spoken of having to turn families away amid a drastic fall in donations, coupled with soaring demand. Meanwhile, new FareShare figures suggest surplus operations are being hit by ongoing disruption to supply chains.

So with the routes of getting food to vulnerable families under threat, what should – and can – be done?

The figures look bleak. The average household energy bill is forecast to rocket to more than £4,000 a year from January, while Kantar figures this week showed grocery inflation hit a record high of 11.6% – meaning the average annual shop is set to rise by £533, or £10.25 a week.

Many charities fear hunger will be an inevitable consequence. The Trussell Trust – which runs more than 1,300 food banks – has called on the government to “urgently” boost welfare payments so more people can afford essentials.

“Food banks will do all they can to help families, but they cannot and should not be left to pick up the pieces when there is a gap in the support provided by our social security system,” says head of corporate partnerships Sophie Carre.

But it’s not just welfare spend that needs increasing. Whoever wins the keys to No 10 may have to offer funding to food banks too, if they are to prevent networks from collapsing. During the pandemic, Defra spent more than £25m on grants to allow food charities to buy food from wholesalers and supermarkets to feed vulnerable families.

As the cost of living crisis worsens, ministers have come under pressure to provide similar funding again.

FareShare was among the 70 charities and community groups that last week signed an open letter to Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, urging them to commit to doing more to help low-income families this winter.

There’s no doubt food banks will be seeing increased demand. Mark Game, CEO of The Bread and Butter Thing, which redistributes more than 100 tonnes of food a week in the UK, says he has already been approached by councils who fear the worst.

“A number of local authorities are talking to us saying ‘would you help us if we tried to find a budget to buy food and keep our food banks stocked?’. We are saying ‘yes we will, but it would be better if your procurement companies did this for you’.”

Falling donations

The problem is, this rise in demand is coinciding with a fall in donations.

Anti-poverty campaign group Independent Food Aid Network has seen donations decrease in more than half of its network, which spans hundreds of food banks across the UK.

Meanwhile, a June survey conducted by food redistribution platform Neighbourly, which works with charities and community groups further illustrated the impact of the financial squeeze. About 35% of the organisations predominantly involved in its food redistribution programmes reported an income drop in the three months prior.

Part of this is down to a fall in surplus redistribution. It’s a marked change from the pandemic, when food surplus redistribution figures broke all records. According to Wrap, over 106,000 tonnes of surplus was redistributed in 2021 – equivalent to over 253 million meals and £330m.

It was part of a positive trend. Wrap says since UK-level data was first reported in 2015, redistribution levels have increased over three-fold, with retailers providing 45% of food received (just over 30,000 tonnes).

However, FareShare CEO Lindsay Boswell says surplus redistribution has recently begun to fall steeply. “There is a franticness in the supply chain. We are finding that food surplus volumes are not holding up.”

Global supply chain challenges have resulted in “unprecedented levels of ‘out of stocks’ in supermarkets”, FareShare says, which has meant less surplus being available for redistributors.


FareShare  Lindsay Boswell

FareShare says global supply chain challenges have resulted in less surplus food being available

Meanwhile, London’s The Felix Project has said the biggest challenge of the cost of living crisis is not lower levels of surplus donations, but rather rising fuel costs, which have resulted in a 25% increase in operational costs per tonne of the food it handles.

“We’re finding the increasing cost is getting us to the point we’re going to have to start making choices about which we food we collect and which food we leave,” says Les Golden, head of food supply at the growing charity network.

Although The Felix Project’s food supplies are “ahead of where they were this time last year”, he expects to start seeing some issues by the end of the summer if fuel and energy prices do not drop.

The group is “proactively” tackling what it expects to be a harsh winter for its communities by reaching out to councils, housing associations and community organisations to set up communal spaces where those who struggle to pay their bills can go for a warm meal. Its provision model has traditionally been to offer individual portions, but it’s now adapting to offer mass catered meals.

In order to do this, it is also reaching out to supply partners to ask for more financial support, as well as flexibility regarding pick-ups and drop-offs to make its surplus redistribution more economical.

FareShare is also looking to mitigate the effects of the economic woes this winter. It hopes to fund weekend opening hours for regional warehouses and increase fleet capacity to make it easier to accept and redistribute more offers of food.

With smaller charities arguably most in the firing line, the situation will again throw the spotlight on controversy over the lack of retailers to have adopted Wrap guidance on redistribution. It has called on retailers to drop restrictions over the redistribution of own-label food to smaller groups.

Last year, The Grocer revealed 300,000 tonnes of food fit for human consumption ended up as animal feed or going to anaerobic digestion because of these rules, which critics like Game claim are “arcane”. Although 72% of the edible surplus was own label, only Sainsbury’s has agreed to implement Wrap’s best practice.

“We are seeing more and more when we engage with manufacturers that they are openly telling us they could give us more surplus but aren’t because of these rules,” says Game. He claims that, unless there are systemic changes to the surplus food redistribution model, the knock-on impact on food banks will also be huge.

Game also suggests a wholesale rethink of the donations system. “You need a procurement contract that is a commercial contract, coming out of government for public tender, which operates nationally. Otherwise, you have over 300 local authorities all trying to tackle it and you’re going to get a postcode lottery as to where people are going hungry.”

Game believes a contract of ‘probably £10m-£15m’ would help support families this winter by filling the gap left by the fall in donations in stores.

As we saw during the pandemic, there are often fierce arguments over how best government and industry should tackle food poverty in a crisis.

But one thing seems certain: unless something major is done, thousands of families will go hungry this winter.