After two years of subdued Christmas celebrations, families are finally gathering around the dinner table in pre-pandemic fashion.

It’s a time of much-needed joy. But sadly, one thing won’t be taking a festive break: the cost of living crisis. Food poverty remains real for the millions of Brits struggling to afford their meals this year.

The food industry has been busy tackling this issue, redoubling efforts to donate surplus and funds to food poverty charities. But at a recent City Harvest roundtable moderated by The Grocer, an important question was raised: are food companies across the board doing all they can to get surplus to those in need? 

For attendee Will Beckett, owner of restaurant chain Hawksmoor, it’s a question of two halves. “We’re dealing with two connected but not completely linked issues: one is food waste and the other is food poverty,” he said.

On the first point, the figures are stark. According to Wrap, 6.6 million tonnes of food goes to waste in the UK annually – and numbers are especially high at Christmas.

The cost of this waste is “enormous”, said fellow attendee, and Rabobank MD, Jeremy Perl. “If you look at some of the big supermarket chains, we estimate they are losing hundreds of millions in food waste.”

Perl acknowledged the supply chain crisis and rising inflation had made it hard for suppliers and retailers to co-ordinate and plan availability ahead – which is why he cited communication and data transparency as high priorities. 

For supermarkets with systems in place to measure, collect and donate surplus food to those in need, it’s easier to reduce the former while tackling the latter. But when the waste happens at the initial stages of the supply chain, the stigma attached to donating surplus food is still a barrier for many, pointed out City Harvest’s new CEO, Sarah Calcutt. “With wholesalers, there is an element of pride around they don’t want anybody to have anything from them unless it’s perfect.” 

Young Foodies head of strategy Giles Moody highlighted a similar concern among premium brands. Worries such as “if shoppers see my premium product in a food bank, will it damage my premium brand positioning?” or “what would my buyer think if they saw my product being distributed in this way?” should be stamped out, he argued, and the positives of redistribution voiced at all stages of the supply chain. 

For small businesses – especially in hospitality – logistics are another key challenge. That was highlighted by Chantelle Nicholson, owner of Mayfair restaurant Apricity. Partnering with networks like City Harvest and FareShare, which can organise pick-ups and deliveries, as well as food waste apps such as Olio, had enabled the business to get its surplus to those in need, she said. 

Moody also highlighted the importance of collaboration. “We all need to work together as an industry to improve forecasting and solve problems at the source, and then where waste occurs we need to collaborate to redistribute – otherwise it becomes a zero sum game within the supply chain and the path of least resistance for stock clearance will be chosen,” he argued. 

For instance, City Harvest connects local charities with a number of potential food sources when it isn’t able to conduct the pick-ups itself. “We always refer them to smaller groups because in the end what we don’t want is for a family to fail to have a meal if we can be a path for other people to do good work,” Calcutt explained. 

And donating surplus isn’t the only way to contribute. Noble Foods CEO Duncan Everett said the team regularly volunteered with surplus networks. This had “significantly” benefited the company because employees feel like they are making a difference, and spread the word across the industry, he said. 

Ultimately, solving the nation’s food poverty crisis is not the sole responsibility of the industry. Nor should food waste redistribution be seen as a sustainable solution. But the economic situation has highlighted the sheer importance of raising awareness and sharing best practice around surplus food redistribution – which can help those in need for this Christmas, and well beyond.