UK’s This is Rubbish! and the Plenty to Share Campaign

UK’s This is Rubbish! and the Plenty to Share Campaign

In today’s food abundant, but deeply food insecure world, is feeding ‘leftover’ food to ‘left behind’ people, really the best we can do? What kind of solution is this to food waste and food poverty? Certainly, the moral imperative to feed hungry people is universal. Food banks distributing surplus and wasted food to millions of hungry people enjoy huge public legitimacy. Yet in 2021, the UN reported global hunger continues to rise. What alternative solutions are there? This podcast focuses on food waste as part of our Corporatization of Hunger series. It’s my great pleasure to speak with UK National Food Waste Expert and Campaigner, Martin Bowman, from the British food waste advocacy organization, This is Rubbish. This is Rubbish’s Plenty to Share Campaign has just released three short animated videos, focused on inequality and the causes of food waste, food poverty and inequality and solutions to them.

Want to get more involved? Sign up to Plenty To Share’s monthly activist digest newsletter, watch their animations and check out their other resources including policy briefs for the deeper dive into the issues.

Host: Graham Riches, University of British Columbia

Guest: Martin Bowman, This is Rubbish

Producer: Deborah Hill, Duke World Food Policy Center

Interview Summary

So let’s get started. As a seasoned food waste campaigner, what led you to this innovative, illustrated explainer video approach? What’s important about this kind of visual messaging? What are you hoping to achieve by it?

Well, we wanted to start telling a different story about how we can solve these problems, and the root causes of food waste and poverty. We show how inequalities of wealth and power in the industrial food system generate waste and hunger, more often than not. Waste and hunger will ultimately continue unless we fix these inequalities. Charities are only a ‘sticking plaster’ solution to food insecurity. What we’re really saying with this campaign is that the UK’s redistribution of surplus food is also only a second class solution for food waste issues too.

So to see what the more systemic solutions for food waste are, we need to look at the root causes. And to do this, we need to rewrite the dominant story of how our food system generates food waste. So, let’s look back at the history of this. Food waste as an issue has taken off really over the last decade, in the UK and globally. A fairly standard story has begun to emerge: “food” waste primarily happens at the retail and consumer level in rich, industrialized countries, and it’s down to individual failings of consumers to be solved with educational campaigns to change that behavior.

Now, on the other hand, we have “food loss,” which makes it sound unintentional, like it’s been sort of lost down the back of the sofa. But it’s actually food wasted in supply chain problems, where lower income countries which lack infrastructure, like storage and refrigeration, and apparently, have inefficient supply chains. The problem with this narrative is, by accident or design, it falsely implies that industrialized food supply chains in rich countries are effectively efficient and low waste. And to solve food waste in these countries, it’s enough to leave it to voluntary commitments by companies. In other words, market innovation will solve food waste, with some role for social enterprises and charities to hoover up the leftovers. So, in this system, we need to modernize the supply chains of countries in the Global South to make them more efficient and emulate these systems. This apparently de-political approach to food waste has become ascendant, and gone largely unchallenged. But it is, in fact, deeply neoliberal: the assumption that businesses in the free market are fundamentally efficient, and any problems are usually down to the personal failings of individual consumers or perhaps state intervention.

With these films and other resources, we basically aim to rewrite this narrative by explaining how actually the inequalities of wealth and power that occur in the industrial food system generate waste. They generate overproduction, price crashes, inflexibility over seasonal variations, and rejecting food for being the wrong size and shape. But not only that, they also distribute wealth and foods extremely unequally. So generating mass hunger, despite there being no shortage of food or wealth to go round, and it creates underdevelopment. The lack of storage infrastructure in the Global South, is not a coincidence. It’s the result of generations of colonial exploitation, which continues in a slightly different form today, with multinational corporations often extracting huge amounts of money and resources from the world’s poorest countries.

Understanding all this means, that we need more systemic solutions than just taking food waste and giving it to people in poverty or embracing voluntary commitments by businesses. We need to design food waste and poverty out of the system in the first place. Our videos sketch out some of these solutions. Now, all of this is a more complex story to tell then just spontaneously rescuing lots of food waste for people in need. What we’ve tried to do with these animations is make this new narrative more accessible and really create these videos out of wanting to help reframe this conversation and communicate about the root causes and the deeper solutions for food waste and poverty.

Thank you so much, Martin, for showing so clearly that food waste is a product of a dysfunctional industrial food system and no guarantor of food security for the poor. In that context, what policy and practice successes has the UK Plenty to Share Campaign had to date in reducing food waste and food poverty? What kind of challenges are you facing? What are the lessons to be learned?

We’re a tiny organization, so we pretty quickly realized that, if we want to win the kind of change we want to see it’s not going to be an overnight thing. So, we decided we need to take the time to build a strong movement behind the systemic solutions and involve whoever we can. Our focus has really been on getting people used to our new way of framing the problems of food waste and poverty, and building a movement to advocate our systemic solutions. We put together a document called the Food Abundance and Equality Declaration, which now has over 40 organizational signatories, mainly based in the UK. But also including, Rights Not Charity and environmental campaign groups, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, also anti-hunger advocacy groups, like Feeding Britain. And I think, really importantly, some of the UK’s largest networks of food aid and redistribution, including IFAN, the Independent Food Aid Network, which is the UK’s second largest network of food aid providers, and groups like FoodCycle, and the Real Junk Food Project.

The Declaration states that food redistribution is only a second class solution to food waste and poverty, and we need these more systemic solutions by regulating food businesses to reduce waste, fairer pay, tax justice, and providing a strong social safety net. We’ve got the launch of the Declaration into “The Big Issue” magazine, which is fantastic. It’s one of the world’s most widely circulated street newspapers. So, we see signing the declaration as a first step to recognizing this new way of framing the issue, and we’ve started encouraging signatories to get more involved in specific campaigns for systemic solutions and feeling more confident to speak out about solutions beyond their bread and butter of food redistribution.

We’ve seen some great collaborations emerging out of this already. A great example is the CEO of surplus food sharing app, OLIO, recently joined Tax Justice UK’s campaigning for the UK to back Biden’s proposals to clamp down on global tax evasion. And as we’re also conscious we don’t have all the answers, we’ve tried to give a platform to amplify the campaigns of the Declaration signatories. For instance, we’ve joined up with social justice activists to amplify their call for a real living wage and stronger social safety nets. In the UK, the biggest opportunity at the moment is opposing the cuts to Universal Credit, which is the UK’s current main system of welfare payments.

For the longer term, we’d like to advocate for things like, a minimum income guarantee, a form of Universal Basic Income, so that the UK social safety net is very strong, and people don’t have to rely on charity to survive. We’re also campaigning for systemic solutions to food waste. We would like to see food waste regulation and to make it compulsory for food businesses to report on and halve their food waste by 2030. We’d like to see unfair trading practices’ legislation to protect suppliers, from food waste being transferred onto them by their suppliers, and finally, creating a fairer food system rooted in greater food sovereignty. So we’re hoping to hold an event in Parliament to give these voices a platform in front of policy makers.

As for challenges, we’ve been surprised by how difficult it’s been to get media cut-through with the project. The UK media reaction to food insecurity is dominated by food banks. So far, unfortunately, supermarket press releases promoting charitable food distribution are more publishable than the emergence of a big alternative civil society collaboration. But the rewards of the project have really been seeing this grass roots movement beginning to build. Ultimately taking the time to build that and set down roots is the most important thing.

Thank you, Martin, you’ve given us a great deal to think about. One thing that strikes me very much is the way you’re re-politicizing the issues of food waste and food poverty. It’s not just a matter for charity. The Declaration you’ve launched is certainly proving to be a significant tool, fostering joined-up food, environmental and income-based social justice campaigning though active civil society collaborations. It’s looking at creatively developing systemic solutions to food poverty and waste. This is significant.

Your comments about the media likewise ring a bell here in Canada. Since the mid 1980s, the CBC, our publicly tax paid broadcaster, has been actively promoting food bank drives and donations making it somewhat difficult for them to report objectively on these matters. In that light, I’m particularly interested in This is Rubbish’s campaign to disentangle solutions to food waste from quick fixes or remedies to food poverty, using food banks as transnational and national corporate go-betweens. So, what practical role do you see food banks playing in advocating for the Right to Food?

It’s a great question, and this has really been at the center of this campaign. So, we see it as absolutely essential that we get food banks and food redistribution charities to be at the forefront of the struggle for things like a right to food, greater wealth equality, and food waste regulation. The media reaction to food insecurity is dominated by food banks. They’re the most visually obvious and filmable manifestation of food insecurity, so they often appear in coverage and become influential spokespeople on food insecurity, for the media and policy makers. They get a lot of attention. So if they call out government policies, it gets reported, as governments are often keen to use food charities as a so called moral release valve. In the UK, when former Prime Minister David Cameron’s conservative government gave up a substantial part of its responsibility to end poverty, through brutal cuts to welfare spending, asked his invented Big Society, aka volunteers and charities, to pick up the pieces, this is exactly what was going on. A photo opportunity with some food bank volunteers, puff pieces about food bank volunteers are more popular with the media as well. It’s a simple story for them to tell, and often newspapers in the UK get involved in campaigning for food redistribution. For instance, I remember receiving a Big Society Award for my own food redistribution work. It just arrived in the post one day, and I remember feeling so angry and ashamed at this kind of lazy co-option, as it was clear that they hadn’t researched what the group I was part of was doing or about its back history. It’s a lot more difficult though, for government to do this co-option, if food redistribution organizations are actively saying, “No, food charity cannot be the long-term solution to the problem, we want you to do this instead.”

We’ve collaborated a lot with the Independent Food Aid Network (IFAN), the UK’s second largest network of food banks. They are fantastic at putting this message front and center – that we want a future without the need for food banks, essentially, we want to do ourselves out of a job. And they’re consistently raising pressure on the government to provide adequate financial assistance to people in poverty, long before our campaign started. The Trussell Trust too, the UK’s largest network of food banks, has also been increasingly vocal about this.

In contrast, there are some food redistribution organizations that have focused entirely on pushing an expansion of food redistribution and strengthening government funding and corporate ties to achieve this. We hope to change that, and change the culture of these organizations, so that they’ll join in with the movement, and that’s the kind of movement that Plenty to Share hopes to create. Ultimately, people in food charities should be our ally. We shouldn’t be seeing them as the enemy. Ultimately, the people working in them want an end to food waste and poverty. And indeed, some of the earliest examples of food redistribution in the US grew out of public outrage of the existence of huge crop surpluses occurring alongside mass hunger in the Great Depression. And the foundation of the earliest food banks in the 1960s grew partly out of concern over food waste. Following the 2008 crash, it’s been an understandable reaction to the raising awareness of food waste, coupled with seeing the devastating impact of austerity policies, that many people have decided to take matters into their own hands and set up charities to redistribute food, to compensate for these failures of government. I must say I was involved in these kind of movements for a decade. For instance, I helped set up the Gleaning Network in the UK, which is a group who would harvest leftover crops from farms for charity. And I helped organize a chapter of Food Not Bombs in London to build the consciousness of why we need rights not charity, and to help build the confidence of these groups to speak out in favor of these systemic solutions.

So to do this, Plenty to Share tries to focus on the things that unite through food aid groups: an acknowledgement that they don’t want to be the long-term solution to food waste and poverty. Our focus has really been getting them involved in campaigns for those longer-term solutions. We use that as a bridge to help encourage them to do more policy advocacy. Simultaneously, alongside that, we have tried to educate people about the limitations of food banks. The most important thing is uniting people around these long-term policies, which ultimately stop food waste arising in the first place and removes the needs for food charities.

Want to get more involved? Sign up to Plenty To Share’s monthly activist digest newsletter, watch their animations and check out their other resources including policy briefs for the deeper dive into the issues.


Leave a Reply