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We explore why one of most affluent countries in the world, the UK, is unable to get the food it needs, while neighbouring countries seem to have avoided the crisis. UK food shortages have been making the headlines as supermarkets have introduced rations on fruit and veg and growers warn of short supply for weeks to come. Combined with these shortages, food poverty in the UK has been continually rising over the last ten years, so we interviewed two experts Chris Price (CEO at Pecan) an Alison Inglis-Jones (Labour Councillor and Food Bank Trustee) to find out more.
In our latest podcast, Will Hill explains how different contracts in the EU and UK are leading to problems for food shortages. According to the Defra secretary Thérèse Anne Coffey, European supermarkets tend to have more variable-price contracts with suppliers, while the UK favour fixed-price contracts. Although this can offer stability to growers, it means that the flexibility required during hard economic times cannot be met and this is partly influencing the current shortage.
Additionally, UK growers have delayed or in some cases, stopped planting certain crops due to the high energy costs and the additional rise in costs of fertilisers.
On the ground, UK consumers have been personally experiencing food shortages. A YouGov poll found that 61% of UK respondents have personally noticed or experienced food shortages in their local shop or supermarket in the last few weeks.
Bad weather has also been a big influence. Droughts struck North Africa, floods hit Pakistan and frosts spread through stockpiles in Central Asia, these have all occurred atop the existing problems imposed by the Ukranian War.
Former Senior ASDA buyer, Ged Futter recently reiterated the points made by Will Hill and Defra Secretary Thérèse Anne Coffey. The need for flexible contracts from UK buyers is essential, especially in the retail sector. Futter makes the clear point that retailers are placing price concerns over supply needs and this fight to offer the cheapest prices to consumers has forced growers to accept severe losses, so much so that many cannot afford to grow in this current climate. It has also meant that retailers have prioritised cost over stock which is contributing to the shortage.
To find out what is happening on the ground and how the fresh produce supply chain could help, we spoke in depth with Chris Price, CEO of Pecan charity and Alison Ingles-Jones, Labour Councillor for Lambeth & Trustee at Brixton and Norwood Food Bank. Pecan run one of London’s busiest food banks, in Southwark. They also run other key social impact services. Brixton and Norwood Food Bank supply one of London’s biggest boroughs and have a huge number of people depending on their service.
For clarity, the two speakers are Chris (CEO at Pecan) and Alison (Labour Councillor for Lambeth and Trustee at Brixton and Norwood Food Bank). Together they helped paint a picture of how the government is dealing with the situation, why food poverty is rising, and whether there is enough food available to fix the problem.
Chris: We started our food bank in 2010 in a very small room, expecting to feed about 400 people a year, so really small. And that just continued to grow as austerity kicked in.
We saw our numbers go up pre-pandemic and we were feeding about 6500 people. Then, in the first year of the pandemic, everything exploded. So, we went from 6500 to 19000 people!
The following year, because things had been calmed down a little, we then went to 9500 people, which was last year. This year we’re ahead of that already. We think it’ll be about 20% up from those figures.
Alison: [Regarding food shortages] We can very clearly see gaps on the shelves. Demand is up by about 30% and donations are down by about 20%.
Alison: People are definitely tightening their belts, so we’re getting fewer donations, but also when we go to the supermarkets and ask for certain items, they just aren’t there. So, we have the money, thanks to the public, but we don’t have access to the goods.
Right now, our stocks are very low. People have less to give, but also, we can’t get enough of certain food items. And that is a supply chain issue.
We thought post-Christmas that it would fall back again, but it hasn’t. We’ve continued at the same level.
So yes, the pressures are definitely there.
Chris: There’s enough food in this country to feed everyone. It’s just not in the right places. When people talk about food poverty, I don’t actually agree with that phrase. It’s not a poverty of food because the food is there.
Alison: Frankly, we shouldn’t be doing this at all. We shouldn’t have food banks, we shouldn’t have pantries [food banks for people who have more income], although I do think that they’re sort of on the right route.
We should have cash for people. They should have the ability to walk into supermarkets or corner shops or fresh food shops and access the food that they want. But because they are so squeezed in terms of benefits and there is nothing spare, they don’t even have enough live on.
I mean, the benefits system [government support for those on low income] is completely broken and frankly, it’s punitive. People are beaten over the head to try and encourage them into work, but half the people who come to our food bank are already in work!
Going to a food bank is not dignified. We try and do the best we can, but it is not dignified.
Chris: No. If there was good access to food for people on low incomes, we wouldn’t be running a food bank.
When we’re closed, I will be able to say yes. And that’s our aim, is that when people have the right access to food, our food bank won’t be needed. And that’s exactly what we want. We want to see an end to the need for food banks. Not just an end to food banks, it’s the actual need for them that needs to end.
Universal Credit [government support scheme for people on low/no income] is set at the lowest the Government thinks people can live on and it’s clearly not enough. Also, we need make sure the farmers are getting the money they need, because you don’t want to have farmers needing a food bank!
Within our network, it is also difficult because we do not have stability of stock that gets donated. This causes problems within the supply.
Alison: It seems to me that when I first got involved in this whole food bank thing about ten years ago, there was no problem getting the food, it was more about the money. But actually, now we have the money and it’s more difficult to get hold of the food.
Alison and Chris agree that food banks only target the symptoms of the problem. Food banks do not target the causes that are preventing food access in the UK. According to their professional opinion, the problem mostly comes from economic policies that do not support disadvantaged people enough and inconsistent supply of the food they need.
Presently, Alison and her food bank have the money from available from donations but cannot buy the food they need because the stock is not there and, to quote her “that is a supply chain issue.” Chris makes the point that there is enough food available in the UK, but not enough people can buy it due to financial constraints. Chris also mentions that “they do not have stability of stock”, and this is a problem for supply.
Fewer donations are coming from the public since people are restricting their spending. Combined with this, the cost-of-living crisis is creating more dependence on food banks. Therefore, supply is falling, and demand is increasing. The supply chain must champion greater efficiency, and fast. Companies in the supply chain need options to redistribute excess stock and donate in efficient and simple ways. FruPro has solutions to make this possible.
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