The UK’s Food Waste and Food Insecurity Paradox

By Eloïse O ‘Carroll
Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

The first months of the year mark the end of holiday excess for many, as some embark on challenges such as Veganuary or Dry January. For others, the beginning of the year is not so sweet.

A recent survey by the End Hunger UK charity coalition reported that a third of the United Kingdom’s poorest households are skipping meals because they cannot afford to put food on the table.  Those most likely to suffer from food insecurity include unemployed individuals and families with three or more children. Food insecurity, as defined in the Low Income Diet and Nutrition Survey of 2007, is the “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods or limited or uncertain ability to acquire acceptable foods in socially acceptable ways.”

Unlike in the US and Canada, the British government does not collect data on food insecurity and has not done so since 2003. In 2014, the United Nations estimated that 8.4 million people in the UK lived in food insecure households and nearly one in five children under the age of 15 suffer from food insecurity. In parallel, the amount of people resorting to food banks has hit record highs this year. However, these numbers only capture the tip of the iceberg, as others rely on friends and family, soup kitchens, and social supermarkets to help feed themselves.

In November 2017, in response to this growing concern, UK Labour Party MP Emma Lewell-Buck presented a food insecurity bill to the British Parliament. If implemented, food insecurity would be measured and regulated, paving the way for effective policy.  

Food insecurity is intrinsically linked to poverty and is a driver of social isolation and exclusion at the expense of individuals’ wellbeing. It can also trigger long-term health and social consequences resulting from the regular consumption of cheaper and less nutritious food. Furthermore, children’s education and life chances are undermined by food insecurity.

Meanwhile, even as a third of Britain’s children are living in poverty, the country is throwing away £13 billion of food each year. This is why reducing the scale of food waste through the entire food system, from farm to table, is a crucial component of improving food security and children’s health and capabilities.

But how can food waste be diverted to those who need it the most?

Food waste refers to edible food, intended for human consumption that has instead been discarded, degraded, or consumed by pests. In the UK, households and the hospitality sector account for half of the country’s food waste. In addition, a large portion of waste occurs in the retail industry. Marketing standards set the bar high and can be seen with produce that must fit a certain shape, size, and colour in order to be sold. For example, national regulations dictate that apples sold in the UK “shall be 60mm” or 90g. Retailers are also under stress to produce a specific amount of food at a specific time, thus they are consistently overproducing. Consequently, up to 40% of goods grown can be rejected and thrown away.

Given the number of British citizens who are food insecure, in combination with the high percentage of food wasted, retailers should adjust their standards and follow Asda’s lead in selling “wonky” vegetables at a 30% discount. After all, once peeled and chopped up, vegetables all look and taste the same. Furthermore, large supermarkets should be legally required to donate all surplus food to local charities, as is the case in France.

It seems absurd for food insecurity to co-exist alongside food waste. So, what is being done to bridge the gap? As charities push for food insecurity to be measured, several community organizations and businesses are stepping in to help reduce food insecurity by combatting food waste.

Community fridges are helping thousands connect to their communities, access nutritious food, save money, and reduce food waste. The concept is simple: people share food that they would otherwise have discarded and anyone can pick it up for free. In addition, applications such as TooGoodToGo and OlioX are pivotal in encouraging people to reduce their food waste. TooGoodToGo links food outlets to individuals, where food is sold at discounted prices in the evening instead of being wasted. OlioX connects neighbours and local shops or cafes with each other so that surplus food can be shared.

Furthermore, pay-what-you-feel cafés are booming thanks to The Real Junk Food Project, which diverts surplus edible food to sell freshly prepared meals. In London, The Felix Project and City Harvest London collect unsold food to redistribute it to charities that provide vulnerable people with healthy meals, with more than a million meals being provided every year.

The co-existence of food insecurity and food waste is a paradox that must be addressed and tackled. With 77% of adults agreeing with Emma Lewell-Buck in regards to the importance of the British government measuring food insecurity — so that “what gets measured gets mended” — it is crucial for the UK to acknowledge the prevalence of food insecurity and waste. By taking action, the government will also contribute towards meeting the Sustainable Development Goals relating to poverty, hunger, health, education, and climate change.

To help tackle the issue yourself, in addition to participating in community fridges or engaging in one of the apps described above, you can volunteer at any number of food banks in the UK and learn how to reduce your own food waste. Every little bit helps!