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America’s 1980s food bank explosion was seen as a short-term ‘emergency’ response to hunger and waste: what can this teach the UK?

In early summer 2016, GMPA Food Poverty Special Interest Group member Charlotte Spring spent two months travelling to 8 cities in the USA and Canada to seek lessons about the role of food banking as a response to poverty, hunger and waste. After 30 years of  redistributing ‘surplus’ food to people unable to afford an adequate diet, often in the form of charitable food parcels, America might provide some lessons and warnings for how the UK understands and approaches rising levels of both household food insecurity and food waste. Charlotte’s PhD at the University of Salford explores these questions in a UK context but her Winston Churchill Memorial Fellowship sought comparative lessons from other nations that experience high levels of inequality, an industrialised food system and a history of charity as well as state welfare as a response to poverty.

Charlotte’s travels took her from the vast warehouses of the Feeding America foodbanking network to street feeding sessions in New Orleans, via community campaigners turning their experience of receiving food charity into political demands, ‘free’ farmers markets and a project training those excluded from the job market to cook nourishing meals for local schools. These visits revealed the hard work of people trying to build more sustainable, inclusive and healthy local food systems. But the trip also highlighted the risks of entrenching a ‘second-class’ food system in the form of food banks and pantries, which has not reduced overall levels of food insecurity or food waste over their decades of existence. While they can be seen to be ‘managing’ the problems of food hunger and waste, and enabling certain beneficial outcomes, they can also be seen as a ‘moral safety valve’1 which distracts public attention away from retrenchment of state welfare and other income-based solutions to poverty, while allowing donors and volunteers to ‘feel good’ about providing ‘emergency’ food.

Visits, interviews and participating in activities formed the basis of Charlotte’s report, which gives a series of recommendations to those involved with policy, practice and campaigning around food waste and food insecurity.

Charlotte Spring Feeding America article for GM Poverty Action

Charlotte Spring

Ultimately, it asks readers to keep looking and acting beyond the sticking plaster of charity, which is largely reliant on unpredictable and often unhealthy donations from large companies that represent an unsustainable food system and concentrated power over the food that we all need to live and access to which is, after all, a basic human right. At a time that the UK has seen a wealth of research, reports and campaigns such as End Hunger UK’s Big Conversation, Charlotte hopes her report will provide learning for those active in both
environmental and social justice work.

Link to full report  Charlotte would welcome any feedback by email or via Twitter: @eatingwaste

1Poppendieck, J (1998). Sweet Charity. Palgrave.