Food redistribution has ramped up in the UK, but are charities stuck in a competitive mindset and hampering efforts to help people in need?

The otherwise disastrous pandemic seemed to have at least one positive impact on food and drink: it united the industry and the charity sector in seeking to prioritise the war on hunger.

From supermarket food box schemes to the high-profile campaign, fronted by Manchester United star Marcus Rashford, to fund free school meals during school holidays, food redistribution became front-page news, and the industry acted almost as a fifth emergency service.

But the battle to feed deprived Britain was not over. The latest figures from circular economy charity Wrap show the total amount of food redistributed in 2022, the year after the pandemic, increased by 27% or about 29,000 tonnes compared with the previous year. And with demand continuing to soar as a result of the cost of living crisis, late last year a campaign led by King Charles once again catapulted the issue to the top of the agenda, aiming to unlock tens of thousands more tonnes of food.

Yet among the growing number of charities vying to get hold of the surplus generated by the food industry, tensions have been rising beneath the surface.

Demand from food banks has resulted in huge competition for the limited (albeit large) amount of surplus food from suppliers and supermarkets and has ignited a fierce debate over how best to use it.

“There’s too much competitive behaviour amongst the charities”

George Wright, CEO of FareShare

Last month, ex M&S and Tesco executive George Wright brought matters to the fore in his new capacity as CEO of FareShare, when he highlighted how cut-throat competition in the food charity sector was endangering efforts to help families on the breadline.

He claims there needs to be a more strategic approach, saying: “There’s too much competitive behaviour amongst the charities, when they should be working to make better use of their collective resources.”

Wright is calling for a radical shake-up of the sector that would see the UK go down the same route as the successful Feeding America programme.

“America is three times more efficient than the UK when it comes to food redistribution,” he says. “The current competitive regime in the UK is less efficient and can result in volume being moved from one type of charity to another – that’s a really bad outcome for the end beneficiaries.

“The best option would be to map the existing sources of surplus and create an integrated UK network for efficient redistribution. That way we can give both the food industry and end beneficiaries the best service and make the most efficient use of our collective resources.


Source: Alamy

Steve Barclay (l) took over as environment secretary from Thérèse Coffey following a cabinet reshuffle in November, and the following week he announced the government would reconsider its decision to scrap plans for mandatory food waste reporting. The news came hot on the heels of pressure from campaigners including celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, business leaders from food and drink, and The Grocer.

“We should also target supply to charities that have the highest community impact, like school clubs and community centres, and those that can use more of the other sources like WIP by cooking in larger batches. Since Covid, too many charities have defaulted to handing food out.

“We need to get more of them back to cooking, bringing communities together, and addressing the root causes of food insecurity.

“Competing for food is not the answer. The reality is there is simply not lots of extra, easy-to-use surplus available,” he explains. “In fact, capacity amongst charities already outstrips supply, and all charities are desperate for more food. That’s why I’ve said competing is not the answer.”

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However, the FareShare model itself is also a source of contention, despite its huge success in raising the profile of food surplus efforts, and others argue that what needs to change is the power that FareShare holds, rather than the work of other charities.

FareShare’s exclusive tie-up with Tesco, in the form of its Community Food Connection scheme, which results in the donation of roughly two million meals a month, is a case in point.

So is the duopoly enjoyed by FareShare and fellow food redistribution giant Company Shop when it comes to accessing surplus own-label products.

Mark Game, CEO of Morrisons food waste partner The Bread & Butter Thing and a leading figure at Xcess: The Independent Food Redistribution Network, has been calling for retailers to stop blocking the wider redistribution of own-label products, having won the support of Wrap.

“If we collaborate, we could target the upstream sources of surplus like farmgate and manufacturing WIP”

Yet in 2022, The Grocer revealed only Sainsbury’s had agreed to implement best practice issued by Wrap, which urged supermarkets to rethink the rules that limit the redistribution of own-label food to such charities.

Game, previously MD of Company Shop, claims little has changed, despite the cost of living crisis.

“Things need to change,” he says. “I was speaking to one of the major retailers last week who suggested that all retailers should agree a simple approval process for their supply chain to deal with own-label goods, and delegate the redistribution decision.

Copy of Too good to go

Source: Too Good To Go

Too Good To Go says it has saved more than 100 million meals from going to waste

“I agree. There are way too many layers in the decisions to redistribute. By the time the request has gone up and down the chain it can be too late. The food industry is super-fast-paced, and redistribution needs to not stand in the way of business as usual. If there’s surplus, it needs to be dealt with fast and uplifted ASAP.

“Simplifying the process is something everybody wants, and we have to look at inviting more innovative ways of unlocking food. The current volumes redistributed are less than 10% of what it could be.

“As we move upstream with surpluses, we need fresh thinking and disruption. If we really want to move the dial on redistributing more food we can’t just keep doing the same things and expecting a different result.”

“We’ve been at this for over 25 years now, yet some of the barriers remain in place. Streamline the decision process, invite fresh thinking, and I’m confident the dial will move.”

Sunak announcement

Despite the fallout, there are reasons for the food redistribution sector to be optimistic, not least this week’s announcement by Rishi Sunak that he was finally bowing to calls from the likes of FareShare to help unlock “millions of tonnes” of fresh farm food for charities.

A £15m government fund will be launched “immediately”, the PM told this week’s NFU Conference. The money will be made available to farmers to fund the cost of transporting waste in the supply chain to prevent it being buried back into field, sent to landfill or going to anaerobic digestion.

It marks a big win for FareShare, though it had been campaigning for £25m. Still, it says the cash will fund the redistribution of enough surplus from farms to deliver the equivalent of 100 million meals a year.

“The current volumes redistributed are less than 10% of what it could be”

Mark Game, CEO of The Bread & Butter Thing

Last year, Wright led placard-wielding protestors at the Conservative Party conference in Manchester and, as well as winning the backing of more than 1,000 charities across the UK, the campaign also crucially won the support of a large chunk of Tory MPs.

For many, such a relatively small government investment to kick-start an initiative that can make such a huge difference to help the hungry was a “no-brainer”.

The belated move to tackle the farmgate scandal seems to signal the government is finally listening to the redistribution sector. And charities are hoping it could soon be followed by confirmation that plans for a system of mandatory food waste reporting for major companies are back on the table.

Total tonnes of food waste generated in 2021 and value of the wasted food (edible parts) using 2021 prices. SectorTonnesValue £ billion (using 2021 prices)







Hospitality and Food Service









Source: Wrap

First promised by Michael Gove in 2018, they were axed by Thérèse Coffey last year, only for current Defra secretary Steve Barclay to signal a u-turn in November days after replacing her. However, no confirmation of a timescale for such reporting has emerged.

“If the government pulled its finger out and introduced better waste reporting, it would show that easy-to-use sources of surplus are reducing quickly for good reason,” says Wright. “That’s because of better systems or companies giving it to colleagues. It’s also increasingly attracting a higher commercial value.”

Sunak’s announcement, however, may also stir up controversy if the funds are seen to be hoovered up by the same old sources.

One result of the pandemic, with the help of new tech, has been the explosion of new models that have been challenging this status quo.

These include apps such as Olio and Too Good To Go, which have given supermarkets and other suppliers far more choice over where to send surplus food.

The Olio app, founded in 2015, already works with Tesco, Iceland, One Stop, Booker, Compass Group and Holland & Barrett to supply food to charities via its network of 90,000 volunteers nationwide.

Too Good To Go, meanwhile, this week announced a milestone of over 100 million meals being saved from going to waste, including from a new AI-powered platform aimed at retailers seeking to draw more margin from near-expired food and to reduce food waste.

Tech complications

Yet despite admiring their entrepreneurial spirit, some sources claim the emergence of such new technology and middlemen complicates efforts on redistribution rather than making it more effective.

“There’s effectively an arms race developing on logistics costs,” says one industry source. “It’s meant large parts of the food industry are getting surplus stuff picked up for free, and we’re seeing companies tender for food surplus partnerships with charities. I think that’s rubbish. We’ve got a team of people going round the industry saying: give us your surplus, I’ll send my trucks. But it’s not like anyone’s sitting on 5,000 tonnes they’re not giving us.”

The Felix Project_Ade_Kehinde 8

The Felix Project has been active in the space since 2016

The Grocer understands talks between food charities, including FareShare, on measures to tackle these issues, are proceeding. The big question appears to be how the food surplus sector can encourage innovation without creating a splintered system.

A key vehicle for those talks looks likely to be The Coronation Food Project, launched last year with the backing of King Charles and billed as a potentially pivotal step towards unlocking more surplus, including from farms.

It includes the FareShare-led Alliance Manufacturing strategy which, upon launch in November, saw an unparalleled gathering of supermarket and supplier bosses hailing a “symbolic and seismic moment” in the battle to fight food poverty.

The companies involved, including the likes of 2 Sisters, Bakkavor and Greencore, have agreed to create a production line specifically to tackle hunger.

Companies creating thousands of tonnes of food to give away shows how far efforts to tackle hunger have come. But there is only so much room for celebration, when the latest figures from Wrap suggest anything from 1.6 million to 3.3 million tonnes of food is being wasted before it even leaves the farm.

Sources say this week’s move by Sunak could be just the start of a more concerted effort to tackle the farmgate scandal.

“There are many things about the food system that present barriers for redistribution, but products just lying in the field because they’re not harvested is just not acceptable in any shape or form,” says one source involved in advising the government on food waste. “Barriers, red tape, whatever you call it, they need to be removed to make access to all that food easier.”

It took the worst crisis since the Second World War to bring the fight against hunger to the fore. And while it’s spawned a new generation of volunteers and shoppers eager to help, solving the systemic challenges getting in the way of the industry doing more could prove just as challenging.

How food redistribution works in the US


Feeding America provided 5.3 billion meals in 2023

Ranked number one in the Forbes Top 100 Charities in the US last year, Feeding America certainly has the credentials and the raison d’être to merit top billing.

In a country where one in seven people – one in five when it comes to children – live in food insecurity, the US has seen a sharp increase in food aid demand even compared to the highest points of the pandemic.

And, just like the UK, food banks in the US report increased pressure due to decreasing food donations and fundraising since the height of the Covid crisis.

However, the industry and charity response has been huge in scale – and effective. By far the largest hunger response network in the world, Feeding America utilises a system of more than 200 food banks and 21 state-wide food bank associations, plus over 60,000 partner agencies, food pantries and meal programmes.

It provided an astonishing 5.3 billion meals to tens of millions of people in need last year alone. And in 2022, Feeding America provided $244m to support network members’ training, refrigeration, transportation and technology investments.

The success of Feeding America owes a lot to an internal market using a synthetic currency called “shares”, which it claims rationally allocates foods. The currency is allocated depending on need and allows individual food banks to bid on what foods they want the most, based on local knowledge and ability to transport and store the food offered. In 2017, Feeding America also announced a plan to increase the nutritional value of food from food banks.