As a who’s who of supermarket and supplier bosses gathered to meet the King at a FareShare depot in Oxfordshire yesterday, it could have felt a long way from the frontline of the war on food poverty.
Instead, this felt like a turning point that should, simultaneously, give great credit to the industry while laying a great heap of shame on the government for its lack of action.
What really stands out, other than the gathering of so many powerful UK food and drink figures, is the contrast between the new initiative they are backing and the desperate chaos that has preceded it.
In agreeing to put competition aside and work together to provide millions of meals for charities on the frontline – not from everyday surplus but effectively from a whole new, resource-sharing production process – the industry is making a seismic shift in its response, as FareShare suggests.
Just compare the new Alliance Manufacturing system, which the industry’s contribution to the King’s Coronation Food Project is being called, with the desperate struggle to provide food we saw during the pandemic.
Back in 2020 and 2021, there was not only a threat of thousands of tonnes of food from the crippled out-of-home sector going to waste, but families starving in the process.
Eventually, the industry and government did respond to prevent the worst happening. But the support that went to charities by way of financial donations, donations of food and food parcel schemes was disjointed and disparate, with no guarantee of how long it would last.
Demand for meals in the UK stands at 810 million a year
The hope is that this week’s launch will lay the foundations for a co-ordinated response which will last for years to come, and be properly joined up with the involvement of top consultants and organisations such as Wrap and IGD.
It must also be hoped the King’s involvement, as well as that huge cross-section from industry, will mean this project stands the test of time, regardless of who wins the next general election.
Because anyone thinking hunger is a problem of the dark days of the pandemic need only look at the figures presented to yesterday’s launch event.
FareShare estimates demand for meals in the UK currently stands at 810 million per year, with 26% of that coming from 30 of the most poverty-struck councils – many of them in the north of England but also Scotland, the Midlands, and the south west and areas of London.
Yet just 2% of that is redistributed, compared to double that in Europe and treble in the US.
Meanwhile, some 13 million people, including four million children, live in food poverty.
Millions of families face Christmas food poverty
Little wonder FareShare CEO George Wright was quick to respond when asked if it was ethical for the industry to effectively set up a system to mass-produce surplus food.
“Last year we provided 128 million meals,” he says. “The figures suggest 680 million meals are needed every year.
“That’s quite a lot of headroom.”
Indeed, worrying about the morals of deliberately creating surplus food is the last thing we should be doing as millions of families face hardship over the Christmas period.
This week’s moves should act as an urgent kick up the backside for ministers who have dithered on the sidelines while the industry has stepped up.
The sad fact is the new initiative will do little to tackle the staggering amount of waste that is created at farms across the UK – food that, with a relatively small amount of investment from Westminster, could also be diverted to help those millions of families in need.
It is, as Wright says, a “no brainer”. But so it seems also are too many of the politicians calling the shots.