Since the start of lockdown there has been a huge amount of press coverage concerning the problems of families being unable to feed themselves. We are all certainly familiar with Foodbank as a charity, one whose need has sadly grown steadily over the last 10 years. They are by no means the only organisation looking to address the growing problem of food poverty. In this article we talk to a couple of people behind “Feeding Britain”, another national scheme.
Feeding Britain was established in 2015 by a group of cross-party MPs and peers concerned about rising levels of hunger in the UK. Two years previously, Frank Field MP and the All Party-Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Hunger launched an investigation into the scale and causes of hunger, which resulted in the publication of Feeding Britain, a strategy for zero hunger in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Feeding Britain operates on a number of different levels. There is no surprise that there is a lobbying function which constantly puts pressure on government to make changes in this area. Recent announcements by the government on free school meal provision during holidays shows just how hard it is to effect change at a government level. As the financial effects of Covid begin to bite, much more lobbying will be needed in 2021.
The focus of this article will be on local initiatives. ‘Number 7’ was opened in Birkenhead nearly 2 years ago. It is a membership supermarket which stocks a range of chilled, fresh, and ambient items, enabling members to save up to two-thirds on their weekly food shopping.
Number 7 operates on a points system all items are labelled with points and members at the beginning of their shop purchase points to use on their goods, any points left over can be used on their next visit.
Membership is by proof of a range of social disadvantages (low income, free school meals, income support) and people are referred by such agencies as CAB, Job Centre Plus and Age UK, who also direct clients to the foodbank.
I spoke to Andy Pilling, the manager of Number 7 and later to Andrew Forsey, director of Feeding Britain.
Andy Pilling spoke proudly of the success of Number 7. Like all projects they have been hit by Covid restrictions and that has certainly frustrated their growing potential. As well as the supermarket they have a café, selling cheap and nourishing meals to the public from morning until 4pm. These meals are further discounted for the 1,000 members of the scheme. The café has 24 seats and pre-Covid they would take 60-70 covers a day. The project employs 2 full time and three part time staff and is supported by nine volunteers.
Much of their supplies come from FareShare in Liverpool. They also get contributions from local supermarkets and food manufacturers in the north west.
At the start of the project, funding for the staff and premises came from Feeding Britain, however the café/supermarket was close to breaking even earlier this year. Andy has a no-nonsense approach honed from many years in the catering industry. He understands that an increased footfall is needed to allow both supermarket and café to operate sustainably, so that all of its bills can be met without seeking additional grant funding. They are already looking for new premises in which to expand and the loss of high street businesses increases their chances of finding available properties in 2021.
Andy mentioned other ways of creating employment and volunteering opportunities, while putting surplus food to good use, like outside catering, again a venture cut short under lockdown.
Those who work at Feeding Britain understand the importance of sharing locally and are part of local co-operative groups. This means that a lot of work is put into making the most of the drivers and vans they have at their disposal.
Number 7 is the first of many similar enterprises launched by Feeding Britain. I wondered if their model of relying on FareShare to provide so much stock was scalable. And this was one of the questions I asked Andrew Forsey a couple of weeks later.
Andrew is incredibly positive about all efforts to tackle food poverty. I liked his insistence that Feeding Britain had no template solutions, rather they were keen to engage with all local communities, many of whom would bring their own ideas and solutions to problems that differ widely from place to place.
Number 7 is one of over 20 community food hubs they are supporting across the UK. Andrew spends much of his time visiting community projects and feels that in many cases Feeding Britain can provide financial and other types of support.
His openminded attitude mirrors that of most organisations I have spoken to so far, believing that no-one has the answers, we are all open to new ideas, and approaches. The prospect of increased unemployment due to Covid and the uncertainty of food supply following Brexit are also concerns he shares with most people in this sector.
I put to him my question about the scalability of these ventures if they are all relying on food donations from FareShare, and local suppliers. His answer was unequivocal.
“We are nowhere near close to using the food that becomes surplus – all too much of which is wasted – in the UK”.
Wasted covers a range of terms and he is NOT talking about food that has gone off or is in some way inferior.
A statement from the Feeding Britain website sums up his feelings:
Community Food Hubs enable local organisations to engage with local food suppliers to build a collaborative and community-led solution to food poverty. While progress has been made to tap into quality surplus food on a national scale, we are still only rescuing a tiny proportion of the food that is wasted every year. Alternative approaches which focus on local supply chains could help to unlock the huge amounts of food that continues to be thrown away.
We can only applaud the efforts being made by Andy, Andrew and the thousands of others creating community food hubs.