Food bank worker

One thing struck me when I first walked through the doors of the FDF in March 2015. Despite having worked in and around food and drink for more than three decades, I hadn’t clocked that it was the UK’s largest manufacturing industry. If I didn’t know it, probably neither did others.

So, it seemed to me pretty obvious that we needed to elevate this piece of information to become common knowledge. For a sector that was – back then – almost always out-shouted by farmers and retailers, it was arresting. At a stroke it validated our importance to the UK economy, and thus to government and voters alike.

Over the following seven years, we repeated it on every possible occasion. Quite quickly we had the satisfaction of having ministers and journalists repeat it back to us. The more it became commonplace, the more we were able to take our seat at the top table of British business. It has now become a widely acknowledged economic reality that gives food manufacturing clout and influence. It underpinned the fact that our views demanded attention and respect during Brexit and the pandemic.

But it also confers serious responsibility. In the months to come I think that responsibility is going to be tested as rarely before.

Last week in these pages, the indefatigable Ian Quinn wrote forcefully about the fact that food waste is an even bigger concern than we thought. The cost of living crisis is creating new challenges in tackling food waste, just as it is undermining efforts on progress to net zero. But rising prices and rampant inflation has another much more pernicious and urgent consequence central to our work,  on which we should all be ready to act right now: it is leaving a scarily large number of our fellow citizens to go hungry.

The Times reported this week teachers now regularly see children as young as eight stealing food from school breakfast clubs because they have no food at home. My local council here in Rutland notes the addresses of those going to food banks now routinely include the more well-heeled roads and villages in even this most prosperous of counties. Food redistribution organisations like FareShare, City Harvest and The Felix Project and specialists like Company Shop are seeing demand skyrocket as inflation and the economic downturn bite.

It is a personal view that the food and drink industry should shoulder the burden of combating the spectre of UK hunger. I can already hear the industry command asking ‘what’s he on?’ and ‘why us?’ The answer to the second is simple: if not us, who? If not now, when? Or to put it more directly: only we have the knowledge, resources and access to food to make it happen.

When I worked for Diageo, we concluded our position as the pre-eminent premium drinks business in the world meant we needed be the pioneering champions of responsible drinking. If we did not step up to our responsibilities, we would have them exercised by others in a way we wouldn’t want. So we embarked on an open-ended commitment to put responsible drinking at the heart of everything we did.

Now the wider food and drink industry – farmers, manufacturers, retailers and hospitality – in our country has a similar obligation. It’s down to us to make sure no one goes hungry this winter. It’s more important than waste, more urgent than net zero. Our industry leaders need to take action now. We don’t need new mechanisms – FareShare, Felix, City Harvest, Company Shop and all the food banks and other wonderful organisations can deliver. We just need the will and determination to act.

We are not so very far from terrible consequences of hunger in the next few days, weeks and months. For the UK’s most important industry, that would be a stain which is too much to bear.

Merry Christmas.