Food security: demand, consumption and waste - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

5  Securing affordable food

How affordable are UK food supplies?

43. A key element of the UN definition of food security is access by individuals to sufficient, affordable food. Alongside incomes, food prices are a key element affecting affordability. The Minister noted that food prices had fallen by 1.4% in the last year and that the proportion spent on food by the lowest-income households had fallen from 16.8% to 16.6% between 2008 and 2012 despite "persistent food price inflation".[90] The Office for National Statistics has also reported that oil prices fell by 6% in the year to September 2014 leading to lower transport costs which could have a downward pressure on food prices.[91] Nevertheless, food prices have risen in total by 36% since 2007, an average inflation rate of 4.4% per year.[92] This rise outstripped the 3.2% rise in the Retail Price Index and occurred despite 'price wars' between some retailers driving down prices on some foodstuffs. Furthermore, when the trend in food price rises is compared with that of incomes, it is clear that since 2007 there has been a rise in the proportion of household income spent on food. Some 11.6% of household expenditure now goes on food and non-alcoholic drink purchases.[93] Although the gap has decreased slightly over the same period, the proportion of income spent by the poorest households on food remains higher than average (at 16.6% for the poorest 20% of households and 11.6% for all households). However, we also heard evidence from food critic Jay Rayner asserting that food prices were in many instances too low, since they undercut the costs of production and threatened the viability of food production systems.[94] In the long term, less robust UK production systems could lead to higher food costs.

44. We received evidence indicating that many people find it hard to afford adequate nutrition. FareShare told us that charitable food donations were being used to meet the short-term food needs of an increasing number of people.[95] The Trussell Trust estimated that nationally some 913,000 people had received foodbank support in 2013-14.[96] The charity had provided some 350,000 food parcels in 2012-13, doubling its previous year's donations.[97] It attributed this increase to "rising food and fuel prices, static incomes, under-employment and changes to benefits".[98] The Fresh Produce Consortium told us that 51% of people had concerns over food prices,[99] and that low-income households purchased some 16% less fresh fruit than an average income household.[100] Oxfam estimates that one in six parents have gone without food themselves in order to feed their family.[101]

45. Witnesses noted that food poverty could not be addressed without tackling overall poverty.[102] This was also the view underpinning the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty's December 2014 report Feeding Britain, which outlined a wide range of factors leading to people experiencing food poverty including budgeting skills, debt, welfare payments, cost of utilities and other necessities, and individual crises.[103] The Minister told us that he considered that tackling poverty as a whole, particularly through helping people back into work, was the most effective approach.[104] With the focus of this inquiry on food demand and consumption, wider poverty issues such as income levels are outside the scope of our report but we address elsewhere in this report and in our July 2014 Food Security report measures to support robust food supply systems which aim to make nutritious food more affordable for all within sustainable UK and international production frameworks.[105]

Data on food poverty

46. Defra published research about household food security in February 2014. However, this was inconclusive since it identified a gap in information in a number of respects, noting in particular that, beyond public information from national charities, there is little evidence available as to "the relationship between receipt of food aid and severity of household food insecurity".[106] The Minister told us that his Department's research had not "ascertained precisely" what was driving the use of foodbanks but noted that other countries were experiencing similar increases.[107] Academic research has also found there to be a lack of consistently collated statistical data on the prevalence and distribution of food poverty.[108] However, the Minister considered that creating a reporting requirement on voluntarily run organisations would be burdensome and divert them from their core task.[109]

47. The Government uses no official definition of 'food poverty'.[110] It has adopted a definition of fuel poverty: someone is said to be fuel poor if their income is below the poverty line once their energy costs have been taken into account and if these costs are higher than the average bills of a similar household.[111] The Department of Energy and Climate Change uses this definition to help it gather data and inform energy policies and programmes. It would be possible to adopt a definition for food poverty, such that a person would be considered to be in food poverty if their income fell below the poverty line once their costs of obtaining an adequate diet have been taken into account. However, more nuanced approaches may be appropriate for measuring the extent of food poverty since a complex of socio-economic and cultural factors drive demand for emergency food aid.[112] The United States, Canada and the Republic of Ireland monitor trends in household food insecurity and food poverty through survey questionnaires. Incorporating similar questions in the Living Costs and Food Survey would enable the gathering of more detailed data on whether individuals have experienced problems in obtaining sufficient food.

48. Charities provided us with their own evidence of a growing number of people accessing emergency food aid, yet there is no national collation of this data nor sufficient analysis on how usage of foodbanks may be linked to rising food prices or constraints on incomes. We recommend that Defra commission further research into why more people are using foodbanks to provide an evidence base to inform and enhance policy responses. We recommend that the Government collect objective and statistically robust data on the scale of household food insecurity, including through the use of questions in the food costs sections of the UK's Living Costs and Food Survey. It should also monitor trends over time so that the effectiveness of policies can be accurately gauged and any necessary changes made in response to evidence of need. In its response to this report Ministers should set out detailed proposals for how it will work with partners to gather data, the timescale for establishing a work programme and its anticipated outputs.

Geographical variations

49. Aggregate statistics disguise variations in individuals' food security related to a range of factors, including where they live. Retailers do not locate in a geographically uniform pattern and so-called 'food deserts' can occur where there are few retail outlets in some local communities. In these areas people find it hard to buy affordable nutritious food, particularly fresh fruit and vegetables. However, the extent to which food deserts cause problems for UK citizens is debated.[113] Tesco told us that food deserts were not a worry for the UK as much as for other countries since UK citizens could buy fruit and vegetables from their local convenience store.[114] The Minister told us that there was a "wide choice" of places to shop for most people in the country hence "the last thing we want to do is have some sort of command and control to decide which supermarkets go where".[115] Despite this, the planning system does determine where retailers locate. In particular the role of planning in enabling local authorities to meet their obligations to promote the health of communities, including through access to local services, is enshrined in the National Planning Policy Framework. This makes it clear that local planning authorities have a responsibility to promote healthy communities,[116] and that local plans should "take account of and support local strategies to improve health, social and cultural wellbeing for all".[117] An example of how planning can be used to promote health is the application of development constraints over where fast food outlets may be located, for example to exclude them from the vicinity of schools, as set out in a policy document promoted by the Department for Communities and Local Government.[118] Retailers themselves also take these factors into consideration, with supermarkets such as Tesco developing strategies with local authorities to gain planning for stores in areas in need of regeneration.[119]

50. Although in an age of internet shopping some people are able to access good deals online regardless of where they live, this is not universally the case. There are constraints on some consumers such as those with poor access to IT, including efficient broadband, or an inability to qualify with retailer requirements such as spending a minimum amount or living in a location to which retailers will deliver. Witnesses submitted evidence to our Rural Broadband inquiry on rural communities' needs for effective broadband services, and a number highlighted problems with current arrangements for its provision in their areas.[120]

51. People living in areas, both rural and urban, with few retail outlets can find it difficult to buy affordable, healthy food, particularly if they have limited mobility or travel budgets. It is therefore vital that local authorities work with retailers to ensure that store development plans take into account the needs of all in their communities and that councils are pro-active in using planning to meet their public health objectives. Technological developments such as internet shopping have a role to play in enabling access to affordable food supplies, and it is vital that communities are not disadvantaged by poor broadband service.

Surplus food redistribution

52. A key short-term measure that can be taken to help those in emergency need of food is the distribution of food that would otherwise be wasted via charitable foodbanks such as the 420 operated by The Trussell Trust. Individuals also contribute via supermarkets and direct to charities food they have bought specifically for redistribution via foodbanks. Foodbanks redistribute such food to those in short-term need, typically providing recipients with a few days' supply of basic foodstuffs. FareShare supplies more than one million meals a month through 1,290 foodbank charities.[121]

53. According to WRAP nine million tonnes of avoidable food waste goes into the waste stream each year.[122] This typically is disposed of either in landfill or used in anaerobic digesters or for composting, yet a considerable proportion is fit for consumption when it is discarded. FareShare estimated that in the UK each year 400,000 tonnes of waste food could have been eaten, yet only 2% is redistributed.[123] The charity criticised this low level noting that France redistributed 20 times the volume of surplus food redistributed in the UK.[124]

54. Witnesses outlined a number of reasons for relatively low levels of redistribution. FareShare noted the difficulty in changing a culture generally accepting of waste. The charity told us that "every single food business that we work with ends up saving money but it is unbelievably hard work to get that culture shift".[125] Furthermore there are practical barriers. Although, as FareShare told us, retailers including Sainsbury's, ASDA and Tesco provided "enormous support" to foodbanks,[126] supermarket operations are geared towards minimising waste, and such quantities of food that are deemed surplus can only be redistributed under strict health protection rules. Morrrisons told us it supported 150 foodbanks nationally despite finding it a challenge, since there was very little food wasted in its stores that was fit for human consumption. It noted the strict rules on use-by dates (as distinct from best before dates) which prevented some food going for redistribution but, whilst considering the current regime conservative, it considered food safety must remain "paramount".[127] Mark Linehan from the Sustainable Restaurant Association also told us that "there are all sorts of hygiene, health and safety, and logistical reasons" that make it "incredibly difficult" for restaurants to contribute significant amounts of surplus food. He further told us that in any case, whilst wholeheartedly supporting foodbanks, he was concerned that society should rely on food surplus to ensure that people living in poverty could be adequately fed.[128] Nevertheless, the social enterprise Company Shop told us that its growing collaboration with the food industry indicated a "real appetite" to redistribute food to "use surplus to make a difference".[129]

55. Whilst much attention is focused on retailers, redistributors have taken steps to engage food producers and processors, with for example Thanet Earth contributing 123 tonnes of otherwise waste fruit and vegetables to FareShare. However, FareShare noted that this represented a tiny proportion of its output.[130] Furthermore, although it had conducted some programmes such as one with Gleaning UK, it had yet to work at scale with producers.[131]

56. Distribution is a barrier for those with surplus food providing it to those in need. The organisation Plan Zheroes told us that food supply infrastructure is not designed to prevent food, from catered events for example, being wasted. The organisation told us of a high level of willingness to share knowledge, and outlined its work to match those with surplus food with those who could distribute it.[132] Retailers have also taken steps to rectify distribution problems, with ASDA for example providing some £200,000 to cover costs of the company's manufacturers wishing to donate surplus food.[133]

57. Witnesses made recommendations for increasing levels of redistribution. FareShare urged the Government not only to measure how much food is surplus yet goes to waste but to develop action plans to tackle it as part of its waste policy.[134] FareShare noted that, despite 59% of charities reporting an increase in the use of their foodbanks over the previous year, some 42% were experiencing funding cuts.[135] It made a number of recommendations including funding of £3 million for five years to establish effective surplus food redistribution networks in order to save the public sector £280 million a year. The charity urged the Government to access £30 million of funding available through the EU Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) programme.[136] The Minister told us that incentives such as the cost of disposing of waste were "already powerful enough" to spur redistribution.[137] He noted that a Government assessment had concluded that the "burden and cost of trying to access" EU FEAD funding outweighed the anticipated benefits.[138] FareShare also called for tax breaks for companies donating food to charities,[139] although this option was rejected by retailers on the grounds that it could have the unintended consequence of increasing food waste.[140] The Minister also rejected the concept of such tax breaks.[141]

58. A practical approach that is gaining traction in the UK is that of the community shop. Company Shop told us that it was extending its national retail network model which did the "hard work to make redistribution simple for retailers, manufacturers and brands" to communities in need through setting up community shops. The model entails redistributing, with the endorsement of retailers, products ordered from manufacturers but not in the event required by the retailer. These products may be of high quality and meeting all regulatory requirements, but have been rejected by the retailer perhaps due to imperfect packaging or labelling. A pilot in Goldthorpe, South Yorkshire launched in December 2013 has enabled 500 members with income constraints to buy heavily discounted products from its store as well as to access support for wider problems.[142] The organisation opened a second shop in Lambeth in December 2014.[143]

59. Defra told us that it prioritised food redistribution in the waste hierarchy and had taken steps to promote this such as organising a roundtable with food retailers and charities which had led to a WRAP working group that had reported on a range of case studies for effective redistribution.[144] With the group inactive since publication of its report in March 2014, Company Shop urged Defra to revive it.[145] Since we finished taking evidence, Defra has stated that it will hold a roundtable meeting to "bring together representatives from the food sector to discuss progress, and options for additional action to increase the amount of surplus food which is redistributed for human consumption".[146]

60. In our Food Security report we recommended that Defra appoint a Food Security Co-ordinator in order to ensure effective joined-up action across the range of government departments whose policies impact on food security.[147] Given the Department's lead role, it would be appropriate for this post to sit within Defra and be funded by it.

61. Food which is edible but surplus to requirements should not become waste. We welcome the efforts of a large number of charities to redistribute such food to people in need, but little surplus food is being redistributed and the vast majority is discarded. Redistributing food, particularly fresh food, is a logistical challenge: donors need an incentive to provide surplus food in the first place and it must be matched with the right recipients quickly while still edible. We welcome the food donations being made by producers and retailers, but organisations could donate higher quantities if they were more pro-active in finding outlets for surplus food in a timely manner. Retailers should work with charities such as Plan Zheroes who are playing a growing role in finding practical solutions. Moreover supermarkets must ensure all their outlets have a sound understanding of how to make surplus food available safely and legally but without being unduly risk-averse.

62. We welcome the work of social enterprises such as Company Shop in developing innovative models to provide quality food at affordable prices to those with income constraints. There is considerable potential for these approaches to be scaled up. However achieving a step-change in the level of redistribution requires concerted action that it would be difficult for a diffuse set of largely voluntary organisations to deliver.

63. Whilst approaches must be based on local requirements and driven by local communities, Defra should set up a task force to co-ordinate national work by charities, local authorities, retailers, food producers and manufacturers to establish an effective food redistribution network across the country. This should be a key remit of a Food Security Co-ordinator, who should also ensure that food and waste policies inter-link effectively.

90   Q205 Back

91   "What is affecting prices in the UK in 2014?" Office for National Statistics, 7 November 2014 Back

92   Price rise 2007 to third quarter 2014. Office for National Statistics, ONS webpages Back

93   Spend in 2012 was 11.6%, up from 10.5% in 2007. Defra, Food Pocket Book, 29 May 2014 Back

94   Q15 Back

95   FareShare (FS2 02) para 4.2 Back

96   See The Trussell Trust webpages. A foodbank is a place, frequently run by a charitable organisation, where stocks of food, typically basic provisions, are supplied free of charge to people in need. Back

97   HC Deb 17 December 2014, Col 1480 Back

98   See The Trussell Trust foodbank project webpages Back

99   Fresh Produce Consortium (FS2 06), para 11 Back

100   Fresh Produce Consortium (FS2 06), para 12 Back

101   See Oxfam webpages Back

102   Q24 [Jay Rayner] Back

103   All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, Feeding Britain, Report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, December 2014 Back

104   Qq 196,197 Back

105   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2014-15, Food Security, HC 243 Back

106   Food Ethics Council and University of Warwick, Household Food Security in the UK: A Review of Food Aid: Final Report February 2014 Back

107   Q207 Back

108   Elizabeth Dowler, Submission to the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, June 2014 Back

109   Q207 Back

110   Q196 Back

111   Department for Energy and Climate Change, Fuel Poverty: A Framework for Future Action, July 2013 Back

112   All Party Parliamentary Group on Hunger and Food Poverty, Feeding Britain, Report by the All Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Hunger in the United Kingdom, December 2014 Back

113   Steven Cummins, Anne Findlay, Mark Petticrew, Leigh Sparks, Healthy Cities: The Impact of Food Retail-led Regeneration on Food, Access, Choice and Retail Structure, Published in: Built Environment, volume 31, issue 4 Planning Healthy Towns and Cities, Winter 2005 Back

114   Q129 Back

115   Q203 Back

116   Department for Communities and Local Government, National Planning Policy Framework, 2012 Back

117   See DCLG Planning Portal Back

118   Public Health England, Chartered Institute of Environmental Health and Local Government Association, Obesity and the Environment: regulating the growth of fast food outlets, March 2014 Back

119   Steven Cummins, Anne Findlay, Mark Petticrew, Leigh Sparks, Healthy Cities: The Impact of Food Retail-led Regeneration on Food, Access, Choice and Retail Structure, Published in: Built Environment, volume 31, issue 4 Planning Healthy Towns and Cities, Winter 2005 Back

120   See Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Rural broadband and digital only services inquiry webpages Back

121   FareShare (FS2 02) para 2.2 Back

122   Waste Resources and Action Programme (FS2 03) para 7 Back

123   FareShare (FS2 02) para 2.1 Back

124   Q71 Back

125   Q71 Back

126   Q66 Back

127   Wm Morrison Supermarkets Plc (FS2 01) Back

128   Q22 Back

129   Company Shop (FS2 09) Back

130   Q66 Back

131   FareShare (FS2 02) para .5.3.1. See Gleaning Network UK webpages for information on its work to co-ordinate teams of volunteers, local farmers and food redistribution charities to salvage for redistribution produce which would otherwise be wasted. Back

132   Q87 Back

133   "ASDA extends food redistribution initiative" Resource Management, 11 December 2014 Back

134   FareShare (FS2 02) Back

135   FareShare (FS2 02) para 4.2 Back

136   Q73. Information on The Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived is at Europa website. Back

137   Q214 Back

138   Q215 Back

139   Qq71,72 Back

140   Q55 Back

141   Q214 Back

142   Company Shop (FS2 09) Back

143   "Social supermarket launched in London," The Guardian, 15 December 2014 Back

144   Q213 Back

145   Company Shop (FS2 09) Back

146   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Fifth Special Report of Session 2014-15, Waste Management in England, Government Response, HC 921 Back

147   Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Second Report of Session 2014-15, Food Security, HC 243 Back

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Prepared 22 January 2015