Food bank, food delivery concept. Frame made of food donations on green background with copy space - pasta, fresh vegatables, canned food, baguette and other groceries. Selective focus
Corporate Reputation

Are food banks being misused by corporate supporters?

Is the halo effect of working with food banks blurring the real issue of food poverty?

In a country riven by years of austerity, few subjects save Brexit cause as much division as the existence of food banks. These charities hand out individual food parcels to a rapidly growing number of people every year who are unable to feed themselves due  to joblessness, low income or sudden benefit cuts. While it is hard to argue that food banks aren’t needed, even those who run them would rather they did not exist at all, seeing them as a visible sign of a country that is unable, or unwilling, to feed its people.

‘Our network has no desire to become the new normal,’ says Emma Revie, chief executive of the Trussell Trust, which handed out 1.3 million three-day food parcels  during the last financial year, up more than 400,000 over the past five years. ‘No charity can replace the dignity of having long-term financial security. That’s why we’re campaigning to create a future without food banks.’

Food banks provoke strong responses on all sides. Jack Monroe, author of Cooking on a Bootstrap, called our need for the banks a ‘national disgrace’, while Iain Duncan-Smith accused their founders of ‘scaremongering’ when he was Work & Pension Secretary, and refused to meet them.

But the food bank volunteers, and the Trussell Trust itself, attract a great deal of praise for their work as well: the charity has picked up an Observer Food Monthly Award for Outstanding Achievement, as well as the overall award at the Charity Awards in 2016. Like all charities, food banks do not and cannot exist in a vacuum – they rely on both individual and corporate fundraising and use social media in order to get their message across.

But the strong reactions that food banks provoke on all sides have led to a number of controversies, most concerning the halo effect that they can throw on the reputations of the companies and individuals who associate themselves with them. In December, the Trussell Trust had to defend itself against accusations that it had been ‘used’ by Tory politicians, many of whom had been pictured outside its banks or had used social media to promote food bank use within their communities.

Food banking does benefit the reputations of Big Food and supermarket chains as good corporate citizens while distracting attention away from low wages paid to their workers

Twitter users said that MPs were using food banks as a PR opportunity, with one describing this as a ‘kick in the teeth’ for those who had been affected by recent changes to the benefits system. The Trussell Trust says that benefit delays account for 24 per cent of food bank referrals, while 13 per cent of those referred to its food banks are suffering because of benefit changes. The latest reputation storm concerns not MPs, but the charity’s corporate partners. It centres on the annual Global Food Banking Network (GFN) conference, held in London this March.

To coincide with the conference, 58 academics and other campaigners wrote a letter to The Guardian, criticising the way that food banks are used in Western society. ‘Charitable food aid is a sticking plaster on a gaping wound of systemic inequality in our societies,’ the letter, signed by everyone from Professor Olivier de Schutter, former UN special rapporteur on the right to food, to Andy Fisher, the author of Big Hunger, read. ‘We deeply oppose the further institutionalisation of charitable food banks in the UK. Over the last 35 years, the normalisation of food banking in the US and Canada has failed to solve entrenched food insecurity. However, food banking does benefit the reputations of Big Food and supermarket chains as good corporate citizens while distracting attention away from low wages paid to their workers.’

That’s a painful message, not only for the Trussell Trust and FareShare – a British charity that distributes waste food from supermarkets and catering companies to charities – but for the corporations that support them too. A number of Britain’s large supermarket chains, including Tesco, Asda, and Waitrose, partner with the Trussell Trust, while Sainsburys, Asda, Tesco and the Co-op work with FareShare. Other corporate partners include Unilever, Cisco and npower, for the Trussell Trust, and catering group Sodexo and food and agriculture group Cargill for FareShare.

The support they give ranges from a £20 million donation from Asda to FareShare and the Trussell Trust to help deliver their infrastructure to specially branded Unilever products proclaiming Fight UK Hunger donated to the Trussell Trust. The corporations that involve themselves with the charities say that they are proud of their work with food charities. However, not everyone is convinced that supermarket and other involvement is benign.

Dr Dave Beck is an academic at the University of Bangor. A former food bank volunteer himself, and a signatory to the letter that was printed in The Guardian, he describes food banks as part of the problem, and believes supermarket involvement is deeply questionable. ‘Food banks allow the community to feel that something is being done, but they’ve become embedded as part of the welfare system – which stops us from remembering that there should be no place for food poverty,’ he says. ‘The welfare state should be the safety net, but food banks have taken on that role. These people are entitled to enough money to live on – not donated food!’

Beck even likens the position of the supermarkets to those of the ‘white saviours’ criticised by MP David Lammy in a Comic Relief spat in February. Lammy said he was ‘not prepared to become part of a PR exercise’ following complaints about poverty tourism.

‘Just as David Lammy talks about people acting as ‘white saviours’, the supermarkets become powerful saviours too – of people in poverty,’ says Beck. ‘Supermarket involvement with food charities allows them to look good. It creates a halo effect for the supermarkets and becomes part of their CSR.’

Although Beck says he would not wish to ban supermarkets from working with food banks, he believes that they should take a different role. ‘I would like them to challenge the Government and hold them to account, rather than helping to perpetuate this system. They should look to their own moral compass,’ he says. Supermarkets are keen to protest that their work with food charities is not a cynical PR exercise, but a response to demand from employees and communities.

It is vital that supermarkets and food banks work together: it raises awareness of the food crisis, the growing need for food banks and also what food banks require

Tesco, for example, says that the initial idea of supporting the Trussell Trust food banks did not come from head office. Instead, it says it got involved in local food collections thanks to requests from its local communities and colleagues in stores. A spokesman adds that the support for FareShare is part of a broader commitment from the entire business to reduce food waste. ‘We are committed to ensuring that no good food goes to waste. Every evening our stores donate surplus food to charities and community groups across the UK; this is perfectly good food that may previously have been thrown away. We’re now donating approximately 300,000 meals worth of surplus food to over 7,000 charities and community groups weekly,’ they add.

Andy Murray, chief customer officer at Asda, describes the supermarket’s partnership with Trussell and FareShare as ‘truly innovative’ and again claims that the idea came from local suggestions. ‘When we’ve asked our customers and colleagues Where do you want us to focus our efforts in your community now? the answer has come back loud and clear. Do something to tackle food poverty,’ he says.

‘I believe this programme is our moment to make a difference in peoples’ lives. I have absolute confidence that our Community Colleagues will deliver this programme with all the passion and commitment that they are renowned for. Every colleague in every shop, depot and office will have the opportunity to support their community in this initiative and together with the UK’s leading forces on this agenda, we will deliver on our promise to our customers. We will work to fight hunger, and we will create change for those who need it most.’

The charities at the eye of the storm say that they need their corporate partners in order to carry out their activities. Revie says that the Trussell Trust will never stop ‘speaking the truth to power’ no matter who is donating. ‘It’s important that academics continue to assess the situation in the UK, so as a nation we can truly understand the scale of hunger and put the right support in place to ensure everyone has enough money coming in,’ she says.

Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, says that taking donations, mainly in the form of surplus food, from companies will not stop his charity from ‘shaming’ those who waste food. He describes the company’s relationships with supermarkets and other donors as ‘a carrot and stick approach’.

‘I don’t think we allow the supermarkets to be cast in a good light,’ he says. ‘In order to change a system where, as standard, only six per cent of surplus food is eaten, we do need to shine a light on the art of the possible – when people do the right thing we should shine a light on it. We will shine a spotlight on those companies that do a good job and are happy to name and shame those who don’t.

‘We are really clear about why we exist – our job is not to make the world perfect but to focus on where we can make the biggest difference.’

The Global Food Banking Network says that its role is to distribute surplus food, and that the purpose of the conference, which The Guardian letter was timed to coincide with, is to share expertise in this internationally. ‘For the third year in a row, global hunger has risen, with 821 million people facing chronic undernourishment and millions more suffering from food insecurity.  At the same time, more than a third of all food produced for human consumption is lost,’ says head of GFN Lisa Moon. ‘Food banks within The Global Food Banking Network recover wholesome, surplus food and redirect it to those facing hunger within the communities they serve. Their work is a crucial stop-gap measure to help ensure food insecure people do not go without. The food banking method is an important part of the solution to the world’s complex hunger problem, which on a whole would also include public policy for increasing food security, international cooperation, private sector involvement, community advocates, among others.’

Boswell, who attended the conference, says that the controversy was little more than a ‘conversation over coffee’ and barely discussed. Instead, countries from around the world shared their expertise in distributing surplus food. ‘We talked to people from Ghana and Madagascar. It’s morally right to share knowledge – if we have it we should always do so,’ he says.

He argues that the aims of the GFN network align more closely to FareShare than to Trussell Trust. Food banking, in an international context, is about redistributing surplus food, not giving out food parcels.  ‘What we call a food bank, they would call a food pantry,’ he says.

In order to change a system where, as standard, only six per cent of surplus food is eaten, we do need to shine a light on the art of the possible

He says the The Guardian letter made him ‘annoyed’, with academics using the conference to promote their own ends. ‘I was particularly cynical to see one of them has a book to promote. Shame on those academics who are deliberately mixing the intent of this conference – which is redistributing food surplus – with the UK agenda of recognising that we don’t want food banks.

‘I really don’t think that a food bank, or food distribution is a solution to poverty. I don’t think anyone who runs a food bank is trying to suggest it is either. The only people I’ve heard trying to connect the two activities are academics.’

Every time a charity receives a charitable donation from a corporation, its reputation risks being caught up in corporate PR drives. However, some PR specialists believe that supermarkets could even do more to help food banks with their public relations. I completely agree that food banks risk being caught up in a corporate PR drive.’

However, supermarkets have the potential and resources to produce effective campaigns that can benefit food banks and smaller charities,’ says Hayley Smith, owner of Boxed Out PR, who also works with food banks, running a campaign called Flow Aid to provide sanitary products to homeless women. ‘I think it is vital that supermarkets and food banks work together. Working together means raised awareness of the food crisis, growing need for food banks and also what food banks require. However, there are other factors involved including government involvement, funding and communications from the food banks as well as the supermarkets.’

While food bank use keeps rising in the UK, and benefit changes and austerity continue to dominate the headlines, it seems clear that food banks cannot avoid being both a political issue and a political football. Managing reputation in the face of this level of scrutiny is a challenge, not just for the charities themselves, but also for all who support them.