There is enough surplus food to end food poverty in the UK. But where is the money to get that food where it is needed?
This is a question raised in conversation with Mike Hartley director of commercial and trading services for the Cyrenians. It’s a newly created post indicating an urgent new sense of direction for the Scottish charity set up more than fifty years ago to tackle ‘the causes and consequences of homelessness’. Cyrenians is now also increasingly central to the vital task of getting food where it is most needed. And that task has grown dramatically during a year of Covid19.
Tripled in fact. That’s a startling statistic. But Hartley backs it up. Before Covid struck, Cyrenians distributed around 550 tonnes a year through their Central and SouthEast Scotland FareShare franchise – a social enterprise which collects quality ‘food waste’ from supermarkets and delivers to the Cyrenians’ growing network of local food banks, community centres, food clubs and other voluntary projects. Now the annual delivery runs to 1,700 tons – and counting.
It’s a remarkable story but there’s an even bigger one. FareShare is an expanding national network. Despite the huge and inspiring effort by members like Cyrenians, only 4% of the UK’s surplus food is distributed. “If you could make that just 30% no-one would have to go hungry again,” says Hartley.
Distributing free food costs a lot
Although the big supermarkets are happy to give their unsold food away – it feels good and saves hefty landfill fees – the cost of delivering it is born by organisations like FareShare and its local delivery partners such as Cyrenians. Volunteers make an extraordinary personal contribution in time and commitment. But it takes hard cash to pay for the delivery vans, the warehouses, the essential admin staff.
Putting it bluntly, Hartley points out that being a partner of the FareShare scheme loses a lot of money every year. ‘Tripling the amount of food put out means bearing even larger losses and having to fill that gap with fundraising.’
There is a solution but it will take both government will and corporate goodwill to make it happen. Covid has exposed the grotesque and growing inequality across the UK (as in many other post industrial nations). Food poverty is growing more equitably. According to the Big Issue: “The number of people in need of emergency food parcels hit new heights after the Covid-19 crisis caused thousands to lose their jobs or see their incomes cut significantly…… nearly two million people turned to food banks [in 2020]….” New research for the Trussell Trust showed around half the people using a food bank had never needed one before.
Yet, while ever more people experience new or greater hardship, others have benefited from Covid – some companies and private individuals have seen profits and savings rise.
How about fair shares of Covid profits?
How about bridging this social and economic divide? Big supermarkets and other private corporations have seen profits boom during the pandemic (think Amazon…). If they each invested just a small percentage of their profits it could end food poverty in Britain.
“It’s all about money,” says Hartley looking directly into the Zoom camera. Just five months into his new post he speaks with infectious energy and this morning’s first conversation with Sceptical Scot has thrown open a daunting glimpse of good stories. With experience of commercial management and publishing, Hartley’s given task is to challenge an enterprising charity to develop a sustainable financial resilience. Securing public funding for good work will become even more difficult in the harsh reality of the post-Covid economy.
“In this sector the relentless pursuit of doing good has meant living hand to mouth,” he says explaining what might be described as his mission: a successful commercial strategy. “Traditionally, making money has almost been frowned upon, even if the profit was being reinvested in doing good. But success is nothing to be ashamed of.’ An evangelistic two-fold approach sets out to show why the income generated in a café in one part of central Scotland is a success to be celebrated because it is crucial to supporting social work with isolated old people in another part.
Covid has brought a galvanising sense of urgency – and opportunity – to the almost bewildering diversity of work under the growing umbrella of the Cyrenians. A great wealth of community collaboration has responded to human need over the last 12 months. The rapid response of the FareShare network has demonstrated a highly efficient distribution of supplies – from Period Products to BookTrust packages of books along with food – direct to households where they are needed and wanted.
In the coming year, Sceptical Scot looks forward to working in association with Cyrenians exploring further with a series of stories about the social challenges Scotland faces – now and after the pandemic – and how different social enterprises are meeting them with a potent mix of hard graft, imagination and kindness.
Next month: how the innovative food pantry overcomes the stigma of food poverty.
Featured image from Cyrenians website: Over 3 million meals shared from Leith depot during Covid19 ‘
See also Sceptical Scot feature Rapid response: Social enterprise shows the way
and on poverty as a whole: Was tackling poverty a Scottish Budget priority?, Emma Congreve, FAI