A group of co-operators based in the East Midlands came together on 31 March to explore solutions to food poverty. Organised by Co-operatives East Midlands, the event focused on the role of co-operatives in promoting food justice.
Debbie Robinson, CEO of the Central England Co-operative, said food justice lies at the heart of co-operation – and is the reason why the Rochdale Pioneers founded co-op movement in the first place.
“The Rochdale Pioneers would be horrified to hear we are still discussing access to food but they would be glad to see co-operators address this,” she said.
Central England has been working with FareShare Midlands since 2018 to ensure that unsold best before and non-food goods are donated to the FareShare distribution centre and then delivered to those in need in our local communities. The project now donates the equivalent of 4,460 meals a day or 22,132 a week – resulting in over one million meals a year.
The retailer also works with food banks across the area. Over Christmas, Central England customers and members donated over 45,000 items in support of its 2020 Christmas Food Bank Appeal. In addition to this, the society is giving all customers who use Healthy Start vouchers an extra £1 to spend on vital food and essentials.
Ms Robinson said co-ops should lobby the government to work towards a food credit system that would give people access to the food they need in a dignified and discreet way.
Paul Gerrard, campaigns and public affairs director at the Co-op Group, argued that food poverty was driven by deep structural issues and economic hardship, with both made worse by the pandemic.
He talked about the Group’s work with Marcus Rashford, who starred in the retailer’s television advert, helping to raise funds for the food charity FareShare. The Group is also part of a food insecurity taskforce launched by Rashford last year to tackle child food poverty.
“Marcus’s personal story began to lift some of the stigma around food poverty,” said Mr Gerrard. Co-op retailers also have a role to play in promoting healthy eating, nutritious meals and cooking, he added.
Nigel Adams, founding director of charity Hope Nottingham, provided an insight into the work of his organisation, which handed our 25,000 food parcels in 2020, 32% more than in the previous year. He said the charity’s approach was to help people move on through volunteering opportunities, training and legal advice.
Co-op East Midlands vice chair, Tanya Noon, looked at the issue of food poverty, sharing an update on Kandoroo, a newly set-up co-op aiming to use digital technology to tackle food poverty.
The name comes from a “Can Do” attitude, said Ms Noon. Kandoroo will create a financial fund to allow providers to distribute electronic vouchers to members and individuals to use for purchases with participating businesses. This will be done via an app designed by VME Retail, which is currently being tested and will likely be launched by the end of the year.
In the US, where more than 35 million people experience food insecurity, the pandemic resulted in greater hardship for those at risk of food insecurity. Households that do not qualify for federal nutrition programs and need to rely on their local food banks and other hunger relief organisations for support.
Stephen McDow, co-founder & executive vice president of Strategy at Nebulae Global Benefit Corp, gave examples of some initiatives US co-ops are involved in.
Co-ops work closely with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Farmers to Families Food Box programme to help distribute boxes of fresh produce to vulnerable people. Through the programme, the USDA is partnering with national, regional and local distributors to purchase up to $6bn in fresh produce, dairy and meat products from US producers of all sizes, including agricultural co-ops.
Food banks, soup kitchens, and non-profit organisations committed to fighting hunger are also listed on FoodPantries.org, a directory not associated with any government agency or nonprofit organisation.
The panellists agreed on the need to address economic inequalities in order to tackle food poverty.
“If we don’t address the economic inequalities in this country than we will continue to have food banks,” said Mr Gerrard.
Ms Robinson highlighted the importance of sourcing Fairtrade products and the global co-operative movement working together to make a tangible difference.