Banking on the food sector to help those in need

Dr Peter Maddox, Director, WRAP UK

Daily life has changed beyond anything I could have imagined barely a month ago. Coronavirus has had a huge impact on all of us, from children being home-schooled through to vulnerable older people who need someone to do their shopping for them so they can stay safe at home. I’m so grateful to all those key workers who are keeping the country running, from the Police to the NHS. And that includes our brilliant colleagues across the waste and recycling sector, who are working hard to ensure that everyone’s rubbish still gets collected.

One of the new realities I’ve been particularly concerned about is seeing local charities, mostly run by volunteers, struggle to get food to those most in need. Food that will make a real difference to families who cannot afford to feed themselves, to older citizens, and for those too ill to shop. This is a problem that we simply have to solve.

But this is also an incredibly hard time for those involved in the retail, manufacture and sale of food. In the very short term, the hospitality and food service sector has been hit very hard by closures, resulting in large stocks of surplus food requiring rapid redistribution - especially fresh and chilled products.

As a result, many businesses have been in touch with WRAP to offer surplus food. Our role has been to ensure these businesses know who can distribute this surplus to people who urgently need food. This is our new reality, and how we can help reinforce the redistribution of food at this time. Our connections helped SA Brain, the brewery and hospitality company, to redistribute surplus food to more than 60 organisations across South Wales in the last few week.

And if any business finds itself with multiple pallets of surplus food and cannot find a recipient, they can email surplus@wrap.org.uk and we will try to make those connections with redistribution organisations.

Food redistribution has been growing rapidly over recent years. Last year, we reported it had nearly doubled between 2015 and 2018, with an additional £81 million of food helping those in need. So, the networks are there, and during this pandemic they are operating as lifelines for many.

But we can all do more, and we are.

I’m proud to announce that WRAP has been working to develop the Covid-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant, in partnership with Defra, and that today we launch phase one; with phases two and three online from Thursday 9 April.

We’re allocating £3.25m to help accelerate and increase the supply of food to not-for-profit redistribution organisations in England. And potential applicants can register their interest immediately.

We’re starting with micro operations for whom a few thousand pounds will make an enormous difference and bring extra storage, better transport, equipment and so on. The idea of new fridges or a van may seem quite inconsequential, but this can make all the difference to a small group of volunteers trying to get food to the community. Within days we’ll offer a similar scheme to medium sized organisations, and will also help larger operators, who need money to unblock their own bottlenecks.

This is not new territory for WRAP. Two years ago, a similar fund helped redistribute the equivalent of six million meals to people in need; beneficiaries including His Church and FareShare Yorkshire.

The Covid-19 Emergency Surplus Food Grant will build on this foundation and ensure greater access to surplus food, and prevent good food going to waste. It will increase access to food donations by helping open more logistical collections. It will help organisations with their storage, sorting, labelling and repackaging of food and, most importantly, it will ease the onward distribution to end beneficiaries. In short, it will more food reaches more people in need – fast.

Today, we are asking all food producers and retailers to carry out some important actions to increase the amount of food that is available for redistribution.

We want them all to review their current approach to food surplus and consult with our new guidelines, produced in association with Defra and the Food Standards Agency. These are being finalised at the moment, and fast tracked for publication. They will help to identify ANY surpluses that are not already going for redistribution, and help remove any unnecessary constraints within their businesses, or on their suppliers.

In short, all suitable food that is surplus should be made available for redistribution, including branded products as well as fresh, ambient, chilled and frozen foods. Companies should temporarily relax any internal guidelines that have previously prevented them donating food which is past the ‘Best before’ date – and redistribution operators should now accept this food.

It’s far, far better that surplus food be redistributed for human consumption than used in animal feed or sent to anaerobic digestion or some other waste route. But it’s important to remember that only food that is safe to eat, and of good quality should be redistributed – but there is plenty of that out there.

We live in uncertain times, but I’m proud that WRAP has been able to make a real difference to the redistribution of surplus food to those in need.