The crisis has plunged 13 million people into food insecurity. Supermarkets and food manufacturers are looking to respond, but there are question marks over whether they’re doing enough
When Asda announced it was offering a free bowl of warm porridge to an estimated 50,000 children during last week’s half term, it conjured up images of a Charles Dickens novel. Could this really be happening two centuries after the Quakers set up soup kitchens for the victims of famine and poverty?
Asda’s move – which came after a million children came forward for the supermarket’s scheme offering £1 kids’ meals with any adult meal last summer – is just one of a growing number of initiatives being offered by retailers and suppliers to help tackle the cost of living crisis.
Asda launched the scheme following research from charity Magic Breakfast that more than 80% of schools had seen child hunger increase in their community in the past year. While no one claims porridge is any kind of panacea for the crisis, Kris Comerford, Asda’s chief commercial officer, said it could provide a “lifeline” for those families worst affected, while another initiative has been rolled out – and now extended – to help pensioners.
In many ways, Asda is standing out for its initiatives to help the most vulnerable people at the moment, but across the food industry, businesses are adapting their priorities to meet the needs of those they serve. The situation is stark in many parts of the country, with the latest Food Foundation Food Insecurity Tracker painting what it calls a “devastating” picture, which has plunged more than 13 million people into food insecurity – one in five Brits.
Just this weekend, research by the Independent Food Aid Network, published in the Observer, found that almost 90% of food banks had seen demand rise at the start of the year compared with the same time in 2022.
“The cost of living crisis has driven competition to new levels of intensity”
James Walton, IGD chief economist
But other research also shows the extent of the industry’s response. Researchers at Cambridge University, for example, have tracked dozens of initiatives over recent months, finding at least 75 that have been launched by supermarkets in the latter part of 2022 and early 2023 alone. The study found half of the initiatives related directly to support for customers, while a quarter were aimed at communities. Asda’s porridge scheme would fall into that camp, as would Tesco’s Kids Eat Free initiative last year available in its 312 cafés across the UK over the half term school holiday. In 2022, Tesco alone provide more than 400,000 free meals to children during the school holidays, including a deal that enabled children to get a free meal worth £3.25 when buying a 60p piece of fruit.
According to the BBC, more than three million youngsters have taken advantage of the cafés and their bargain deals since May last year.
The final quarter of initiatives tracked by Cambridge University were targeted at staff and, with supermarket workers among those in the firing line of food poverty, just this week Asda and Tesco announced record investments in staff pay.
Many supermarkets have also leant their weight to the Feed the Future Campaign, backed by organisations like the Food Foundation and Sustain, which calls on the government to extend free school meals to all children on universal credit. It received a major boost this week when London Mayor Sadiq Khan announced a one-off £130m fund to provide free meals for all children across London for the next year.
National Food Strategy author Henry Dimbleby says it has made the case for rolling out free meals across the UK “irrefutable”, though England has yet to follow Scotland and Wales in such moves.
The UK government is also facing heavy criticism for its handling of the Healthy Start Vouchers Scheme, aimed at low income pregnant women and children under four facing food poverty. Technical problems have plagued the now digitised system and affected levels of uptake.
But it is not the only one facing criticism. Supermarkets are also under fire for not doing enough to promote the scheme, which the Local Government Association has estimated is failing to reach up to 150,000 eligible families every month.
“The Healthy Start scheme is a key area where retailers could be doing more,” says Shona Goudie, the Food Foundation’s policy research manager. “Recent figures show uptake of the scheme is only 62%, falling short of the government’s 75% target.”
She argues that retailers have an important role to play in helping to increase awareness of the scheme such as by promoting it in stores, and including food products that can be purchased with Healthy Start. “Much wider promotion of the scheme is needed to reach those who have not yet signed up and remain unaware of the scheme. Retailers have an important role to play in helping to increase awareness of the scheme such as by promoting it in stores, for example including it on food products that can be purchased with HS payments.
“Last year Iceland promoted the scheme on their milk bottles and on delivery vans. It would be great to see more retailers doing more things like that to increase uptake as well,” she says. “But to the best of our knowledge currently only Iceland and Sainsbury’s are promoting Healthy Start.”
This would no doubt make a difference, but in reality, the volume of food moving through such projects is tiny compared with the amount moving out of retailers and into food banks and surplus supermarkets.
This is perhaps the main avenue for tackling food insecurity in the UK, but here too, the situation is plagued with problems. For while there are record volumes of food coming into the system, the record level of demand continues to exceed it.
FareShare alone collected almost 3,300 tonnes of surplus food during December from retailers and suppliers, the equivalent of nearly eight million meals and a clear overhaul of its previous record. In total through 2022, about 49,000 tonnes of good-to-eat surplus food was collected from the food industry, with Tesco alone donating a record 12.5 million meals to support FareShare and the Trussell Trust in 2022, whilst donations to the Tesco Food Collection event in December came in at 2.4million meals – a 53% rise on 2021.
And yet these donations are not enough. With demand for food increasing across the UK, the likes of FareShare are struggling to cope. In 90% of the charities it serves, for example, demand is up. As it continues to expand across the UK – it has recently signed up 50 new partners to provide food in the past six months alone, with operations now in the Isle of Wight, Devon and Cornwall, North Wales and the Highlands – the situation is becoming harder and harder.
“FareShare has doubled the volume of surplus food it provides over the last three years but demand is greater than ever for good quality surplus food, and we have over 1,500 charities on waiting lists,” says Kris Gibbon-Walsh, the charity’s director of network and operations.
It is not just food banks under pressure. Surplus food retailer Company Shop saw demand for food more than double over Christmas. The Biffa-owned social enterprise, which sells surplus stock at discounted prices, now runs 14 social supermarkets across the UK, all in high areas of deprivation, and says it served nearly 46,000 baskets of food from its stores in the first two weeks of December.
Fortunately it too has seen an uptick in donations. In May, it announced it had received a 34% increase in donations from industry partners over the past year, providing the equivalent of more than 2,950,000 meals for individuals and families in food poverty.
“In the current climate, providing businesses with the right interventions for their surplus stock can do more than just prevent unnecessary waste, it can deliver much-needed food access and holistic support for families who need it most, but can afford it least,” says Company Shop’s new managing director, Owen McLellan.
The devastating impact of food poverty
adults and four million children are living in homes without adequate access to food as of September last year
of households with children have experienced food insecurity in the previous month
…that is a rise of 50% since the same study was carried out in April last year
Source: Food Foundation
Its former boss, Mark Game, who now runs The Bread & Butter Thing, working with the likes of The Co-op, Morrisons and Greencore to redistribute food, says despite initial reports of food banks and charities facing shortages because of supply chain issues caused by the war and the financial crisis, the industry has responded. “I think the cost of living crisis has made us all value food in a new way, both at home as well as pushing up costs across the industry,” he says.
“Businesses have been scrutinising their operations in more depth to maximise the bottom line and avoid as much waste as possible. You might think that would make things harder, but actually it’s really opened the door to new conversations as everyone wants to make their food and their surpluses work harder.
“For example, exploring crop interventions on farms or second-tier surpluses and the benefits of using more than one redistributor.”
It’s not just food that has been provided, either. Earlier this month, Ocado, Disney UK, and Company Shop launched a new year-long family Cook Club initiative to teach cooking skills, with Disney-themed recipes, and is expected to see 12,000 families participate.
Coca-Cola Europacific Partners (CCEP) meanwhile, says its workforce has donated 8,230 volunteering hours – the equivalent of someone spending every hour of every day for almost a year – to good causes in Great Britain in 2022, as part of its commitment to supporting local communities. That was on top of more than almost £1m in charitable donations.
But the impact of the cost of living crisis has stretched far wider than helping those traditionally most at risk from poverty and hunger. With soaring energy bills and food inflation cutting into family budgets, despite some encouraging signs that inflation may have reached its peak, millions have been brought into the poverty squeeze in a way not seen for many decades.
It’s meant supermarkets have been fighting perhaps their fiercest battle ever to prioritise price and value.
When Asda launched its Just Essentials Range in May last year following criticism from food writer Jack Monroe that it was not doing enough to help keep prices down, there were those who claimed it stigmatised the poor. But within six months, Asda had attracted 400,000 new shoppers from rival supermarkets claiming the yellow packaged range had been a key driver of traffic.
Last week, The Grocer revealed Tesco was now price-matching Aldi on nearly 700 products, as the combination of household budgets being slashed and the appeal of the discounters continues to be the biggest factor driving retailer strategies. Last week, even high-end retailer Waitrose announced a £100m investment in price cuts.
James Walton, chief economist at IGD, believes the financial crisis will have a lasting impact on the strategies of retailers for many months to come. “The UK food industry has always been very price competitive,” he says. “But the cost of living crisis has driven competition to new levels of intensity. However, industry leaders have not taken their eyes off the big picture.”
He adds: “At some point, inflation will slow (perhaps reverse) and demand will pick up again. Industry leaders need to ensure that they do not go back to business as usual. They need to drive development of a food industry that is fit for the future.”
Increasingly that means not only securing profits for shareholders but ensuring that as an industry and a country, albeit one in the midst of a whirlwind of financial challenges, we can still do the most important thing: feed our people.