New research highlights UK food charities struggling to serve people in need

6 July 2016

Today we published the results of a survey of charities and volunteer organisations across the UK which regularly distribute surplus food to those in need.

It's been published to coincide with the start of a review of the ‘Guidance on the application of date labels to food’ which commences today at a cross industry workshop hosted by the Food Standards Agency and Neighbourly with representatives from the Food Foundation, WRAP, food charities and major UK food retailers.

Conducted in June 2016, the survey gathers the views of 218 charities and volunteer organisations involved in distributing surplus food to those in need. Collectively, these organisations help to feed over 30,000 people every week, equivalent to 1.56 million meals per year. The survey provides a telling snapshot of the sector’s needs, but also highlights the lack of comprehensive national data covering the UK’s surplus food redistribution sector and its capacity to meet current demand.

Organisations responding included staff & volunteer led charities, housing associations, food-banks and other community led groups. The results reveal the striking challenges that confront these charities and provide an insight into the problems of tackling food poverty in the UK today.

The primary uses of food surplus were for emergency food provision (54.6%) or regular hot meal provision (33.5%), illustrating the dependency of large numbers of people on the capabilities and infrastructure supporting food charities, and on donations and support from the commercial sector. Organisations cited peaks in demand arise from benefit delay (71.7%), unexpected financial crisis (70.7%) and cold weather (49.0%). School and Christmas/New Year holidays were also major factors.

Despite being relied upon by 30,000 people every week, the survey revealed many of these organisations lack essential capabilities needed to deliver meals consistently and in times of peak need: 47.8% of organisations need more storage space; 40.7% need transport to collect donations; 36.8% lack refrigeration capabilities; 33.0% need better funding; while 28.7% need a more regular supply of contributions. Notably, lack of volunteers and retention of staff were markedly less of an issue.

In line with increasing awareness of the need to provide healthy balanced diets, the willingness to accept fresh food donations was high at 94.9%. However, probably because of the capacity issues highlighted above, while bread (98.1%) and vegetables (96.2%) were almost universally accepted, the numbers accepting dairy (68.1%), food ‘on the go’ such as sandwiches (63.3%) and meat (59.5%) were much reduced. This may point to the lack of capabilities identified earlier (refrigeration, transport), or simply the greater concerns around the safe handling of these fresh foods. The Neighbourly Food service allows charities to request not only food donations but also related help, such as volunteer drivers to deliver food.

The review which started this week will explore whether any improvements in food safety labelling and guidance, or better education around it, might increase the volume of surplus fresh food donated and used by the voluntary sector.

Commenting on the report, Steve Haines from Neighbourly said, 'The survey gives an accurate snapshot of the heroic efforts of groups across the UK in getting surplus food to those who need it most. Food surplus redistribution is a win-win for society. But we need to address the huge gaps in both capability and capacity. We need to help these charities and community projects get whatever is needed – whether that means funds, volunteer drivers to deliver food, consistent food donation supply, or the right tools and infrastructure – in order to better serve those in need.'

Industry leaders attending today’s workshop commented:

Steve Wearne, Director of Policy at the Food Standards Agency: “The FSA supports all efforts to make sure as much food surplus as possible is safely redistributed. That's why today we are starting the process, working with Defra and WRAP, of reviewing the date marking guidance, the aim of which is to make the guidance clearer for organisations wanting to redistribute surplus food. As part of our contribution to the waste reduction agenda we also launched an information campaign this week to help consumers reduce waste through making more effective use of their freezers.”

Robin Hinks, Research and Policy Officer at the Food Foundation: “This new data provides an illuminating snapshot of the vital work of charities and the voluntary sector in tackling food poverty in the UK. However, it also demonstrates that the third sector lacks the capacity to meet the nutritional needs of society's most vulnerable, particularly during crisis periods such as school holidays and cold weather events. To ensure no one is left behind and reduce demand for emergency food provision, government needs to: robustly and routinely assess the scale of food poverty in UK; consider the nutritional impact of its policies; and take a leadership role in safeguarding the diets of society's most vulnerable throughout the year.”

Dr David Moon, Head of Food Sustainability at WRAP: “WRAP’s recent quantification research has highlighted the opportunities to increase food surplus redistribution. These new insights build on this work, detailing some of the barriers that redistribution organisations face. Through Courtauld 2025, we will work with organisations including the FSA, Defra, and redistribution groups such as Neighbourly, to seek ways to overcome barriers, including better guidance on date labelling. This will deliver an important step in reducing food waste”.

To find out more about how Neighbourly are working to distribute surplus food, visit www.neighbourly.com/aboutsurplus. Since launch in December 2015, we've worked with charities and retailers across the UK to help share over 230 tonnes of surplus food to help people across the country. Also, visit the Food Standards Agency site here, to find out how you can help tackle food waste.