Hunger in Abundance: Why we need food banks to reduce food insecurity and prevent food waste

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This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders  from around the world and all parts of society  address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.

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On 29 September this year, the world celebrated the first-ever International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste. But there is no need to remind food banks of the importance of this subject: it has been their daily concern since the establishment of the world’s first food bank in 1967.

The major international networks of food banks — including the European Food Banks Federation, Feeding America and The Global FoodBanking Network — bring together more than 1,500 food banks in 70 countries across five continents, each with very different socio-economic and cultural circumstances. They are on the front lines, preventing food waste and reducing food insecurity in our communities to help 160,000 charities assist more than 62 million people. While the world produces enough food to feed 12 billion people when we are 8 billion, 3 billion people cannot afford a healthy diet and 690 million people went hungry in 2019 (SOFI, 2020).

Read the OECD Policy Response: Supporting Livelihoods During the COVID-19 Crisis: Closing the gaps in safety nets

This paradox of scarcity in abundance is still without an adequate answer. According to a joint statement by the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and International Fund For Agricultural Development, and the World Health Organization, “The economic and social disruption caused by the pandemic is devastating: tens of millions of people are at risk of falling into extreme poverty, while the number of undernourished people, currently estimated at nearly 690 million, could increase by up to 132 million by the end of the year”. This is happening also in Europe. Our latest report European Food Banks today: commitment, creativity, and openness to change, released in September 2020, highlights a 30% increase in food demand coming from new targets of poverty: jobless people, families with children and elderly people living alone. On the other side of the ocean, TV reports show concerning queues at food banks in the United States. The challenge is clear, so we must keep supporting those who are already providing the solution. Every day, food banks around the world ensure food is not wasted from the food supply chain, redistributing it to charities for the benefit of those in need. They address food insecurity, manage surpluses and prevent loss and waste at source, supporting the shift to a more sustainable, equitable and healthier food system for all.

We must be aware that food waste occurs mainly in industrialised countries. Disadvantaged communities and low-income per capita countries cannot afford to waste food! The most recent estimates of European food waste levels reveal that 70% arises in the household, food service and retail sectors (FUSIONS, 2016). Awareness and education around this must be a constant concern for government authorities — and all stakeholders — at all levels. Food banks can play a crucial role through their networks of mainly volunteers to bring home the message of "No Good Food to Waste".

The advent of artificial intelligence should encourage the development of smart labelling (e.g. thermo labels) to improve household food management. More research could further improve the use of chemicals and the development of food manufacturing techniques to extend the shelf life of fresh produce, like improving the use of controlled atmosphere storage with nitrogen gas to keep produce fresher longer. These and other initiatives would contribute significantly to the limitation of waste.

Also on the Forum Network: Crisis as Opportunity: The triple challenge to global food systems by Julia Nielson, Deputy Director, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, OECD

Food banks and their affiliated charitable networks are not solely philanthropic organisations fighting food insecurity among disadvantaged people; they are proving, especially in the coronavirus health crisis, that they are a reliable partner. They not only support charities to help those in need, but also provide an efficient and rapid solution for food businesses with unexpected surplus food. Food banks are an integral part of the food system because they promote the transition from a linear to a circular economy: what could be lost or wasted is re-valued for the benefit of the economy, the planet, and people. They are fulfilling their mission of mobilising goodwill so that one day the paradox of scarcity in abundance will be a story of the past.

Today, we cannot guarantee that in the future every person will have adequate access to food, and that no resources from the only planet we have will be wasted. However, we are committed to making every possible contribution to achieve this goal. The first result will be the achievement of the SDG Target 12.3: to halve global food waste by 2030.

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Jacques Vandenschrik

President, European Food Banks Federation

Born in Belgium, Jacques Vandenschrik obtained a Master’s Degree in Hospital Sciences from Université Libre de Bruxelles. He started his career in Somalia working for the European Development Fund, he worked at a local University Clinic in Belgium, and then he led the HR department of a large industrial group in South Africa. He finally founded his own business specialized in antiseptics. During the 25 years of his stay in South Africa, he was the Honorary Consul of Belgium for the Eastern Cape. In 2007 he turned back to Belgium where he took the helm of a local Food Bank and assumed the Vice-presidency of the Fédération Belge des Banques Alimentaires. In 2015 he became member of the Board of Directors of the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA). Elected in May 2018, he is the current President of FEBA.

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