Does Donating Food Help Solve Hunger? New Paper Suggests Not

By Janet Haugan, Director of Marketing  //  February 28, 2017

Food donation and food waste

Many foodservice operations incorporate donating excess edible food into their food waste strategy and overall mission to do good. The US EPA food recovery hierarchy, which has long been a guiding resource for prioritization of food waste solutions, positions feeding hungry people just below source reduction for preferred approaches to food waste. And it seems like it’s hard to argue with the inherent “good” that comes along with feeding hungry people, right?

But new research is turning this topic on its head, and questioning the bigger picture issues associated with this “Band-Aid” fix. The Food Research Collaboration (FRC) briefing paper, published in late January by Professor Martin Caraher of the City, University of London, and Dr. Sinéad Furey of Ulster University, tackles this topic. The paper, entitled Is it appropriate to use surplus food to feed people in hunger? Short-term Band-Aid to more deep-rooted problems of poverty, explores the intersection of these two issues: food donation and food insecurity.

We certainly prefer that edible excess food goes to those in need. This is necessary and important work, but it's not the solution to hunger.

The study focuses primarily on the United Kingdom, but also draws on research and learnings from other developed countries. The authors of the paper say its intent is to stimulate an informed debate on this movement, since there is more emphasis on food waste and food insecurity now than ever before.

While connecting food to hungry people certainly provides immediate hunger relief in the short-term, the researchers focus on the fact that there is no evidence that this system actually addresses long-term food insecurity. The real gap for food security is the gap between income and food costs.

There are several key points addressed throughout the paper:

  • Research from other developing countries has shown that systems that encourage the use of waste and surplus food, like donations, distract from the issue and do not address the underlying socio-economic causes.
  • Relying on donations from individuals or companies and their distribution through charity does not meet the needs or rights of citizens.
  • Users of food banks are limited to what is donated – which may not be appropriate for nutritional, family, or cultural needs. This is not conducive to human rights.
  • Long-term reliance on this system is not possible, since surplus food donations are erratic and always changing from week to week. There is no guarantee of the stock of food or how many people can be fed.
  • It’s expensive to store healthier, perishable foods and there’s no incentive to focus on this, so, as a result, many donated food items are non-perishable and typically not as healthy.
  • Positioning the use of surplus food as a solution to wasted food is risky, as it distracts from the larger food waste issue and the food waste hierarchy.

The paper was written to stimulate debate primarily as it relates to the government’s role in solving these issues, concluding that it should not be the responsibility of individuals or community volunteer sectors to perform the social security functions of the government.

But what new thinking can this spark within the foodservice industry?

The paper outlines the benefits and drawbacks of using surplus food to feed hungry people across different stakeholders, including the food industry. Benefits include reducing the amount of wasted food sent to landfill and assuring that food is not wasted. However, there are also drawbacks and potential risks:

  • When employees know you are donating food, this may result in intentional overproduction. It may not be intentional in a way that’s consciously trying to be wasteful, but there may be a sense that, “we are giving this food to people who need it, so it’s going to a good place.” In a sense, you are offering philanthropy with your employer’s dollars.
  • In a similar vein, you may be excusing missed prevention opportunities. Instead of scrutinizing overproduced foods and the resulting adjustments that should be made in purchasing and production, you instead accept overproduction as part of doing business and don’t require anyone to take action.
  • Overall, you may confuse the message within your kitchen about what matters most. Employees may place more emphasis on donation as an emotionally satisfying step, and one that is more visible, rather than prioritizing prevention (which is often invisible).

Food donation is good and important work. But the catch is that donation isn’t a structural solution. And when viewed as one, it may be obscuring the underlying need for a true structural solution.

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