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The vicious circle of the cost–of–food crisis

The vicious circle of the cost–of–food crisis

Four months since A Torn Safety Net, Hannah Rich looks at food insecurity and its impact on charities across the UK. 16/03/2023

If toilet rolls were the sought–after item this time three years ago, in the panicked early days of the pandemic, tomatoes are this year’s hot ticket. As early as last December, the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) warned that the UK was “sleepwalking” into a food supply crisis, due to the combined cost of what it called the three Fs: fuel, feed and fertiliser, all of what have risen significantly in price. The failure to heed the warning is now making itself apparent, with supermarket shelves becoming barer and shortages of fresh produce starting to have an impact on British shopping lists.  

There is a reason that the idea of ‘food insecurity’ as opposed to ‘food poverty’ has crept into economic commentary. It is affecting a greater swathe of the population than before, for one. In some cases, even a steady income is no guarantee of being able to buy everything on your grocery list. But while it is beginning to bite for those previously immune to economic challenges, the trickledown impact is biting even harder for those already struggling to make ends meet. It is compounding the need already seen at food banks and pantries.  

“Things like potatoes, we’ve struggled to get hold of. Normally, we’re inundated with fresh fruit and vegetables. We’ve had to buy it in this year or else we’ve just not had it,” says Lily Axworthy, chief executive officer of Greater Together Manchester, which oversees a city–wide network of community projects including emergency food provision. “That’s really sad when our premise has always been that we’ll give unlimited fresh fruit and veg to anyone and everyone who needs it.”  

The problem begins even before carrots and potatoes have hit the shelves of supermarkets or food banks, let alone a roasting tin. The cost of producing vegetables is at an all–time high. The volatility of natural gas prices, due to the war in Ukraine, has pushed the price of fertiliser up by 139% in a year, with reverberations throughout the agricultural sector and food chain.  

A combination of rising energy costs, narrower margins and a shortage of labour means that British farmers are planting fewer potatoes or, in some cases, giving up on potatoes altogether. It costs more to grow and harvest vegetables than it does to produce wheat, and farmers are adapting accordingly. Global food systems researchers based at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine found that the UK simply not growing or importing enough fruit or vegetables for the whole population to enjoy the recommended five portions a day. They concluded that we would need to produce 9% more homegrown fruit and vegetables, or import it, in order to adequately meet the country’s requirements; almost half of our vegetables come from imported varieties because of changing consumer trends and cheaper overseas agriculture in recent years.  

Even when fresh items are available at food banks and pantries, the cost of cooking them means visitors are more reluctant to accept them. 

“Once upon a time, big joints of meat were the golden item, but now people are hesitant to take them because they don’t want to have to cook them,” says Axworthy, reflecting on the changing demands of people coming to a ‘social supermarket’ in one of the most deprived wards in Manchester. Even items like whole chickens donated and offered free of charge are not without cost. It is increasingly common, she says, for churches and local charities to cook meat items before distributing them, or even carve them up into separate portions for freezing. “We normally give out turkeys at Christmas, especially for some of the bigger families… This year we asked people if they’d like us to cook them first, because that’s four or five hours of having the oven on and that’s not nothing. All anyone talks about when they’re sitting around in our projects is gas and electric.” 

It is a double whammy; those in food insecurity are also more affected by rising energy costs. Food Foundation data found that in addition to changing their eating habits, households which reported food insecurity were significantly more likely to also say they were deliberately cutting down on using appliances for cooking, eating meals cold, washing dishes in cold water or turning off the fridge.  

Church and community groups have historically been good at finding sustainable and creative ways to resource their emergency food provision, but even the most resourceful projects are being hit by the wave of shortages. The cost of living crisis is changing not only how many people rely on these projects, but also what they can expect from them.  

As Gordon Brown and Rowan Williams wrote in their foreword to our recent Theos report A Torn Safety Net, “compassion is not running out, but cash is”.  

If there is less on the shelves in the first place, then naturally there is less left at the end of the day, too, revealing the strange contradiction of quite how much we have come to rely on food waste as the panacea to food poverty. It makes sense that at a time when all our budgets are tightening, supermarkets also have a close eye on their margins. Some have done so by actively trying to reduce their waste by putting out less stock. The empty shelves are partly down to supply chain problems, related to Covid or Brexit depending on who you ask, but in many cases also a function of deliberate and careful stock management. Saving energy by running one less fridge or freezer is an attractive offer to store managers looking to reduce outgoings, for example. 

Economists call this the ‘bull whip effect’. Small fluctuations in demand at the customer level can reverberate and translate into progressively larger fluctuations and greater variability further along the supply chain. (Just imagine the way that a small flick of the wrist at one end of a skipping rope can ripple and send the other end of the rope flying high into the air.) Customers individually buying less translates into big decisions on behalf of big corporations, leading to bigger changes in their ordering strategies with knock–on effects for suppliers and the wider food ecosystem. 

For example, Tesco found that as many as 69% of its shoppers were looking for ‘yellow sticker’ reduced items, and responded by actively revamping the bargain section of some of its stores to make it more attractive, streamlined and less of a free–for–all. This is good news for bargain hunters at the supermarket, but bad news for waste food projects who rely on there being leftovers. There are further unintended consequences from the well–meaning initiative of getting rid of sell–by dates on many products too; there no longer comes a deadline when they cannot be sold and therefore become eligible for reduction or redistribution. 

It is a cruel irony that food waste redemption projects, which in many cases started life as niche environmental concerns rather than explicitly anti–poverty initiatives, are now a mainstay of the charity and community sector. There being less waste food should be a good thing, but it is a change that has come at the least opportune time. Church and community groups report a less reliable supply of surplus donations direct from supermarkets.  

“We’ve typically been getting leftover stuff from two Tesco’s, a Co–op, a KFC and a Sainsbury’s, and that kept us ticking over when donations have gone down, but the amounts coming from that are beginning to reduce now too,” one food bank manager told me recently. Another reported that what used to amount to a lorry load a day of surplus food given to food banks and pantries in their town had dwindled to one a week.  

It’s a problem of distribution, not of supply, according to Ali Gourley from FareShare, which redistributes surplus food from the industry throughout a network of charities across the UK. In 2020/21, FareShare helped 10,542 charities and community groups, with over 1.1m people provided food supplied by the network. 

“We’re not able to meet the need. We’ve never been able to meet the need… ironically there is actually way more surplus food than we can redistribute. We don’t have enough money or resources to get to it,” says Gourley. At the height of the pandemic, government funding enabled FareShare to scale up its operations, but that funding has since stopped despite the fact that 90% of community groups within the network, including a large number of churches and faith–based charities, say they’ve seen an uptick in demand in the last year. In a survey conducted in autumn 2022, the majority of groups said they’d have to cut back activities without FareShare’s input, with 22% saying they’d have to stop altogether.  

This is a vicious circle because of course, at the point that food pantries and food banks are having to actively purchase more produce rather than relying on donations, costs are rising across the board. The Trussell Trust, the country’s largest network of food banks, reported having had to spend twice as much money as usual on buying food for its emergency parcels this winter. 

“I imagine charities are having to buy food from sources other than us [to meet the increase in demand],” says Gourley. “That’s far more expensive for them to do. That means they’re spending less money on frontline services like debt advice or whatever the charity does. It means that they’re probably having to be more creative with what food they get. It means that food parcels going to people won’t be as good or as quality as they would have been otherwise.” 

Locally, redistribution of surplus food is often reliant on ad hoc networks of volunteers and community groups to collect it from supermarkets. “There is an obvious increase in demand for food, but trying to find a way to get it to people is hard when volunteers are stretched,” one supermarket employee told me. It is “heart–breaking”, she says, to have to throw out “perfectly good” dairy, meat and fish produce when local volunteers aren’t able to collect it from the store by the 8pm deadline. “All it would take is someone with a car and a fridge, but even that is a lot to ask when petrol and electric are through the roof.” 

Nick Waterfield, who runs a community food hub based out of a Methodist church in Sheffield, says that over the last year, he’s observed a change in the demographic of those coming to the project, as well as an impact on how their needs can be met. During the pandemic, they moved from a food bank model to a food hub model and did away with the referral system. On average, the hub feeds around thirty households a week, each of whom pay a £1 contribution in return for a selection of staple food items and fresh produce. The bulk of the goods come from FareShare.  

This costs the church a small subscription each week, which is covered by the contributions of guests, at the same time allowing them to feel they have bought their groceries rather than receiving a handout – something Nick says was important in redesigning their model. He has seen the selection of items coming from supermarket surplus change markedly:  

“I don’t think we’ve seen a decrease in quantity. We still get the same number of trays coming off the FareShare van, but the quality and variety is noticeably worse. We get more treat items now, more cakes and biscuits, and fewer staples. We were getting tins of ham and hot dog sausages, but it’s been months since I saw a tin of meat come in.” 

“That’s the difficulty. It’s stuff that’s harder to shift. Not all of it is of any use on our shelves. This week, for example, we got a boxload of seaweed thins. They’re an acquired taste. I even ate them myself in front of people to try and persuade them to take them, but they’re hard to shift and anyway, they won’t exactly fill anyone up.” 

Increasingly, it is older people and working individuals who come to the food hub, as a way of stretching budgets rather than feeding a whole family. The fluctuating variety of produce on offer means you couldn’t rely on getting a full recipe’s worth of items. Short of reducing the number of items each customer gets, there isn’t a way to make stock go further.  

According to Waterfield, families and larger households often turn to food banks rather than projects like the food hub model, because they have a more regular stock list, rather than depending quite literally on what comes off the back of the lorry, and can also often give out more items. He cites the example of a woman who was recently overjoyed to find a birthday cake within her one pound selection at the hub. It isn’t exactly the difference between eating and not eating, nor is it an essential, but rather it represents the ability to make limited finances stretch further and cover ‘treat’ items for which people wouldn’t be able to budget.  

“We’d like to see the government fund us to redistribute surplus food,” says Gourley. “At FareShare, we’ve got a scheme where we go to farms and help redistribute surplus by covering the cost of picking or packing it. That would help increase the amount of food we can redistribute to the sector. It wouldn’t do anything on the demand side. The sector would still be flooded with people, but it would go some way to doing more to help.” 

Back at the Methodist church in Sheffield, Waterfield agrees. “It would be good if we didn’t have to do this, but given we do and this government thinks of us as part of the welfare system, the question is how can we ensure it’s not as random? It can’t just rely on what doesn’t sell, because maybe what doesn’t sell isn’t going to sell anywhere, including at a food hub.” 

Perhaps after years of ‘permacrisis’, the limits of local ingenuity and creativity are being reached; there are solutions, but they are increasingly structural. In yesterday’s Budget, the chancellor announced a £100m package of support for charities. Details of its distribution remain to be fleshed out, but it is a welcome recognition by the government of the fragility of parts of the charity sector and the ways the safety net is torn. But there are also ways that policy and investment in sectors like agriculture could be shaped in ways that would also benefit the charity sector, albeit indirectly – as we have seen acutely in the case of food waste and surplus. 

Faith groups and local charities are valiantly meeting the needs of their communities, against the backdrop of growing demand and the rising cost of living, but there is a limit to how sustainable a system that relies on there being surplus elsewhere can be. Compassion is not running out, that much is true, but cash is and so too are the leftovers. 


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Photo by Nico Smit on Unsplash

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

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Posted 16 March 2023

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