Demos: Replace half of food banks with sustainable solutions to food poverty

– Think-tank calls for Government-backed community supermarkets fund to better support the 6 in 10 current food bank users who experience ‘chronic food poverty’
– Report urges using landfill tax revenues to support affordable food schemes, and removal of legislation preventing excess food being donated
– Analysis also challenges myth of unhealthy shopping habits in low-income families
The number of food banks in Britain should be cut in half by 2020 and replaced with sustainable solutions to food poverty, according to a new Demos report.

It calls on the Government to set up a ‘conversion fund’ for food banks willing to adopt a community supermarket model, while ensuring at least the same number of people on low incomes are able to access affordable food.

The report cites figures estimating almost a thousand food banks exist across the UK. However, many are only able to provide vouchers for nine days worth of food a year – invaluable for those in crisis, but unsuitable for the 60% of food bank users experiencing chronic food poverty all year round.

The findings, Demos argues, show food banks should focus on people in crisis while more sustainable strategies are formed to tackle food poverty in Britain. Researchers investigated 45 different community supermarket models, both internationally and in the UK, showing they provide more practical, long-term help to families in need.

Like food banks, community supermarkets serve a social purpose, however their business model allows them to sell groceries at below market rates all year round. Some employ membership schemes which reward people who do volunteer shifts with cheaper food supplies.

Under the proposed ‘conversion fund’ scheme, existing food banks would be able to apply for a Government grant to set up a community supermarket if they can show they meet certain criteria such as local unmet demand and a sustainable business model.

The new model would not only provide a better long-term solution for families in poverty but also for food providers who would no longer be restricted by depending solely on donations.

Use ‘Landfill tax’ to tackle food poverty

The Demos report proposes a range of measures to tackle food waste, specifically high levels of surplus produce being dumped by big chain supermarkets.

It’s estimated that each year 90,000 tonnes of produce in the UK is sent to landfill. Last year the big seven supermarkets pledged to reduce the amount of food waste from 6% down to just 1% by 2020.

Demos argues the existing landfill tax on retailers should be reinvested in the conversion fund to support the creation of new community supermarkets. If possible, this should happen at a matched, local level, so areas where retailers send more waste to landfill contribute proportionally more to affordable food schemes.

Researchers also call for the removal of barriers preventing retailers who wish to donate food to charities. Obstacles include the cost of extra staff and transportation, plus food safety legislation that places legal liability on potential donor retailers, who too often find the risks of donating surplus food outweigh the benefits.

The British Aisles report also:

– Challenges the myth that low-income families are much less likely to buy healthy food and need to change their behaviour. A comparison of average food expenditure shows families in the bottom fifth of earnings spend 11% of their weekly shop on fresh fruit and vegetables – only marginally lower than the highest fifth (14%) and the national average (13%).

– Urges the Government to appoint a national food security champion responsible for increasing the amount of research and information on food poverty in the UK, and working to mitigate the increasing impact of squeezed wages and rising food prices.

– Encourages health and wellbeing boards to collate and publish more local data on food poverty by co-ordinating with public services such as GPs diagnosing malnutrition, schools running breakfast clubs and payday loan advisors.

Ally Paget, Researcher at the think-tank Demos and author of the report, said:

“The UK’s food banks do a fantastic job, but more than half of those who currently use them need a more sustainable solution to truly lift them out of food poverty. Community supermarkets offer one way for people to come together to access affordable food, alongside other support that can help them get back on an even keel.

“Businesses have a major role to play. At the moment, laws and regulations make it difficult for food to be diverted from landfill to where it’s really needed. We’d like to see government help remove some of the obstacles preventing those with good intentions from being able to easily redistribute food to those in need.”

Caroline Mason, Chief Executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, said:

“Esmée Fairbairn Foundation has a long standing interest in food and in its impact on people, communities and the wider environment. We welcome ideas like the ones in this report which link food businesses and supply chains with the needs of local communities – reducing food waste as well as food poverty.”


The report, British Aisles, by Ally Paget is published by Demos on Wednesday 11 February 2015.

This research was supported by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.