Nothing perfect about food poverty

9th Feb 23 by Lucy Antal, Lead for Food Justice & Christina O'Sullivan (edited by Megan Romania)

Supermarkets should not be normalising foodbanks

I was disappointed  to see Waitrose using the phrase ‘Perfect for the food bank’ for in-store marketing of some veg stock powder. I took to Twitter to share my disapproval, where it was retweeted over 1,600 times – clearly, my Tweet hit a nerve. Tone matters: Yes, whilst some products are useful for food banks, and shoppers find such in-store reminders helpful, the reality is that no food is ‘perfect’ for the food bank because food banks should not exist. Signs like these are becoming normalised in our society, encouraging shoppers to feel good about helping ‘the poor’ (very Victorian) whilst overlooking why this structural inequality exists in the first place. 

Let’s take a deeper look at the relationship between supermarkets and food banks.

As helpful as it is when someone buys something to donate to a food bank, each purchase ultimately boosts the supermarket’s profit margin. Sainsbury’s was recently in the news for continuing to record massive profits, and these high profits celebrated by Sainsbury’s only serve to highlight the painful inequality of our society: Research from the High Pay Centre revealed that, in 2022, the CEO of Sainsbury’s earned a whopping 183 times more than the average employee. Over at John Lewis, who own Waitrose, the top earner makes 75 times that of an average employee. Interestingly, the pay ratio used to be 25:1 at John Lewis but this was changed in 2012, perhaps given the the Cost of Living Crisis it is time for it to be changed again.

Supermarkets continue to rake in profits whilst millions of people are struggling to feed themselves. Food bank usage is at a record high: the Trussell Trust saw an 81% increase in food bank usage across its network last year. Figures reveal that one in five referrals to food banks are from households where someone works, including nurses. This even includes supermarket employees, with reports that Asda staff are relying on foodbanks

Ultimately, good food should not be wasted, and if supermarkets have food surplus, it should be redistributed. But much like that thoughtless sticker in Waitrose, food banks can only ever be a sticking plaster. Furthermore, we have heard anecdotal evidence that up to 20% of products donated directly from the supermarkets as surplus is in fact unusable, yet all supermarkets like to point to their altruism of donating millions of meals per year. 

We need a real living wage and a right to food

After the debacle of the mini budget under Liz Truss et al, we were promised a period of stability and growth that would rebuild the economy. Instead, we have an ever increasing rate of food cost inflation, alongside the quadrupling of energy costs. We are reminded that “everyone” has received an energy support payment, but what is not discussed or even mentioned is Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s decision to defer an uplift to welfare support until April 2023. That means people in receipt of universal credit, pensions and more are still trying to live on an income that hasn’t kept pace with inflation. For these people, food costs are spiralling, hence the increased need for food aid. A rights-based approach to food, on a cash first basis, would create the necessary breathing space and safety net for people, especially if this was enshrined in law. 

Food banks only work in a short-term capacity and were indeed created as an emergency response for absolute destitution. They have now become ubiquitous, but the model is not sustainable. We are so deep in dystopia that a sign reading ‘perfect for the foodbank’ is being defended by Waitrose. There is nothing perfect about food poverty, there is nothing perfect about supermarket workers relying on food banks, there is nothing perfect about people being made to be grateful for the meagre crumbs given to them – we need a right to food, now. 



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