1. European Social Survey
  2. City Q-Step Centre
  3. Culture & the Creative Industries
  4. Food Policy
  5. Jeremy Tunstall Global Media Research Centre
  6. The Centre for City Criminology
  7. Research on Work and Society

Is it appropriate to use surplus food to feed people in hunger?

This paper explores the intertwining of two critical issues, where the redistribution of abundant surplus, unsaleable and donated food is being put forward as a solution to meeting the food needs of food insecure people. This is an issue which has been subject to debate for many years in developed economies: scholars have argued that this “surplus food redistribution” is not an effective way to resolve problems associated with poverty and food, nor excess food production.

Nevertheless, in recent years, in the context of increased attention on the sheer volume of food wasted across the UK every year and the recent rapid expansion of people being fed by food charities in the UK, there have been calls to enhance and expand the practice of using surplus food to feed hungry people. Here we ask who really benefits from diverting surplus food from landfill to feed food insecure people, and whether this practice fulfils the ‘Right to Food’.

The paper has a primary focus on the UK but draws on lessons, experience and research in other developed countries. We offer it to stimulate an informed debate at a moment when all sorts of solutions to reduce food insecurity are being put forward. Specifically, we see the recent passing of legislative approval in Europe (France and Italy) to require supermarkets to donate surplus food to charity as a possible impetus for similar discussions to be held in the UK. In Italy the Food Bank movement – Banco Alimentare – is also offering its expertise to food and drink producers, retailers, the hospitality sector and wholesalers to divert food to the most deprived in Italy, following introduction of “Gadda Law’ in September 2016 that incentivises such charitable food donation. Recent reports such as ‘Feeding Britain’ that recommend strengthening the diversion of surplus food from landfills to food charities, require these types of actions be critically evaluated before being more widely promoted as ways to “eliminate hunger” in the UK.

We begin by examining the problem of food surplus and waste in the food system. Next we examine evidence of increasing demand for charitable food assistance in the UK. We highlight how the co-existence of these problems has fuelled recommendations for mechanisms to foster increasing the amount of surplus food diverted toward hunger-relief in high-income countries. We go on to examine the merits and drawbacks of using surplus food to feed food insecure people, and conclude with reflections on whether or not this practice is in line with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food…” and that governments be responsible for ensuring this right.

We end with discussion of the need for a concerted effort to reduce the amount of food going to landfill, as well as an urgent need to address the problem of insecure and insufficient access to food in the UK; however, we argue that these distinct problems each deserve to be tackled in their own right. We highlight concerns that interlinkages between these problems may serve to undermine food poverty as a critical issue of human rights that requires upstream solutions. Furthermore, we explore how linking food waste to food insecurity demands to be evaluated from a social justice perspective, as this practice can serve to diminish people’s choice and their right as citizens to access food in socially acceptable ways.

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