Writing for The Big Issue, King Charles III expressed his concern about “cost of living pressures” that are resulting in “too many families and individuals missing out on nutritious meals”. Meanwhile, he adds: “millions of tonnes of food are sadly discarded.”
It’s true. One in five people in the UK aren’t sure where their next meal is coming from. That’s more than 13 million people experiencing food insecurity as you read this, including four million children.
“We’re almost a quarter of the way into the century, I think to myself in those terms,” says Baroness Louise Casey. “My god, at the end of 2023, the fact that we’re all having to work out how we can get better supply of food to families who have no money is a pretty awful place for us to be.”
Casey has been a catalyst for change in homelessness and other social sectors for decades. She’s been brought in by Blair, Cameron, May and Johnson governments to lead on various taskforces. During the pandemic, she was behind the Everyone In initiative, ensuring 15,000 rough sleepers were brought off the streets. Earlier this year, she was asked by King Charles to help develop the Coronation Food Project.
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King Charles hopes to rescue surplus food from growers, manufacturers and retailers then redirect it to organisations across the country who can get it to those who need it most. While millions are going hungry in this country, tonnes of edible food is wasted.
“King Charles is helping draw attention to both sides of this issue,” Casey says. But why? “Obviously, the man is obsessed with the environment. I think he also understands the importance of food, both from an agricultural perspective but also a very human perspective. You know,” she adds as an aside, “his bara brith [Welsh tea bread] is his pride and joy.”
“He’s very conscious that people are having a tough time,” Casey continues. “As a country, even in our darkest moments, there are many of us that will step up and try and do something to help. Look at The Big Issue. Look where it came from, look what it does now. You’re not alone. There are many other people that do that every day. King Charles is one of them and understands public service.”
Casey is co-chair of the Coronation Food Project with Dame Martina Milburn, the former long-time chief of The Prince’s Trust. “We’re not coming in to invent something new,” she explains. “We’re coming in to support and expand what already exists. Basically, we’re boosting the sector to be able to reduce the amount of food waste, and use that for a social purpose.”
More than 8,500 charities and support organisations already rely on surplus food supplies. The Coronation Food Project has three main aims: to save more surplus food, “supercharge” existing distribution networks and increasing the amount of grants and funding opportunities available. The ambitious aim is to increase capacity to provide 200 million meals a year. “The idea for seeing if we could reduce waste and use that for a social purpose came directly from the King,” Milburn says. “King Charles is always brilliant at seeing if his convening power can be used to help people.”
The Coronation Food Project continues work that began last December when a £1 million fund, which included a personal donation from King Charles, enabled 800 fridges and freezers to be donated across the UK.
“The first thing you’ve got to have if you’re moving fresh food is fridges and freezers and refrigerated lorries,” Milburn says. “The bit that in my view is missing, and what we’re trying to address, is the logistics that make it all happen. For example, there might be a bumper harvest and too many courgettes. How do you take that and get it to people? The organisations have to have the capacity, so they need bigger storage facilities, more vans. You might take some fish and put it in a blast freezer to extend its life. And what do you do with the glut? You can make soups and sauces, again, extending the life of fresh food that would otherwise be wasted.”
After months of consultations and research, Milburn and Casey, supported by a team coordinated by the King Charles III Charitable Fund, came up with a plan that focuses on establishing “super hubs” across the country, starting they hope with Northern Ireland, Glasgow, Merseyside and London, to be later joined by Birmingham, Cardiff, Leeds and Milton Keynes.
The project has already received the backing of all political parties. While it will reach the entire UK, Milburn points out that “there is not a uniform picture across the country. In some parts, you have very different circumstances to others.”
The numbers involved around food poverty and food waste are overwhelming and difficult to process. What millions experiencing food insecurity really means is that people you know – relations, colleagues, neighbours, your kids’ classmates – don’t have enough to eat. To those not directly affected, the problem can be invisible.
The Coronation Food Project will build on existing networks including those operated by The Felix Project in London and FareShare across the rest of the UK, both already redirecting surplus food to hundreds and hundreds of places across the country – from homeless shelters to nursing homes, domestic violence refuges and more.
Finding out more about some of these organisations provides a stark snapshot of those in need in Britain in 2023.
Teardrops opened in St Helens, Merseyside in 2018 with a mission to support people in the area experiencing homelessness. Their mission has had to change. “We’re seeing the demographics of people changing,” hub manager Nick Dyer says. “We’re getting more people who are working, older people in their 60s and 70s, young people who are having problems at home. We’ve got a smaller minority of people who are homeless and rough sleeping than people who are accommodated – but who are struggling just as much.”
The hub, situated in a brightly painted converted cinema, serves breakfasts and lunches each day. There is a Night Cafe serving hot meals four nights a week. In 2022, Teardrops served over 7,500 meals, much of it supplied by donations from the public and a weekly delivery from FareShare.
“At the minute, we’re probably averaging at least 60 to 70 people per service,” Dyer says. But supply is not keeping up with demand. “I’m down 60% on donated food on the figures from last year. This help from King Charles, it’s vital to be honest. We’re seeing the growing need.”
Down the road in Liverpool is another organisation that has food at the heart of its operations. Asylum Link Merseyside has seen over 100 refugees and asylum seekers looking for help since August, and as Big Issue has reported, many thousands more people who have been granted right to remain are going to be made homeless before Christmas, further increasing the strain on support services.
Service manager Ewan Roberts explains that clients of different nationalities take the lead in the kitchen each day. So one day Iranian cuisine may be served, the next a Bangladeshi dish. Now there’s not enough food to go around. “For the first time ever last week, the kitchen ran out of food at lunchtime,” Roberts says. “We’re expecting increasing numbers between now and Christmas and Braverman’s latest pronouncements [the home secretary proposed a restriction on tents, claiming rough sleeping is a “lifestyle choice”] indicate that she sees no link between her policy on ramming people through the asylum process to get the hotels emptied and the increase in tents on the street. In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, asylum seekers and refugees have always been a political football. We’re working through how we can make things go a bit further.”
FareShare already supplies food at a rate of four meals a second to over a million people across the UK. In Edinburgh, they work with the Cyrenians. Michelle Redpath runs the Cyrenians Community Pantries across Midlothian and the Borders from a base in Leith.
“It’s a wide range of people we support,” she says. “There are retired people, a lot of single parents that come along with their kids.”
Besides the food, there are cooking clubs and Citizens Advice at the pop-up pantries. Redpath has just been planning provisions for next week. “I try to make up about half of the order with fresh fruit and vegetables, if we have it, some meat products, a few tinned goods, and then some kind of sweet treat. You try to think about what meals people can make out of the food.
“Last year from the pantries we distributed food to make over 70,000 meals. We are now running 14 of them – twice as many as this time last year – supporting between 300 and 350 households per week. And we currently have waiting lists at most of these pantries, often struggling to have enough food for those that come along.
“The increase in food being made available through the Coronation Food Project will enable us to offer more support to those that need it most and, importantly, good quality and varied products.”
In London, Reverend Esther Akam leads Kensal Rise Methodist Church in North-West London. Wanting to reach out to the local community, Akam opened up the doors to the church once a week, hoping people would stop by for a chat, putting a little table out with a few food items to tempt them in. But she noticed that the food would run out almost immediately.
“As time went on, it dawned on me that people are struggling and not able to sustain themselves,” Akam says. “Not just those that have lost their jobs, people that are in jobs and are finding things difficult because of the rising cost of living. All sorts of stories and all sorts of people. We’ve seen nurses. There’s a school around the corner and some of the staff come to take the food for themselves. This is really a lifesaver.”
While a post-service coffee morning is a fixture of church halls across the country, where the congregation can natter over a civilised tea and biscuit, after her sermon is when Akam now brings out crates of food, that feeds at least 50 families, with members of the church (and those who are not) establishing their own informal network to deliver food to at least 50 more. Feeding a community was not in the job description, but Akam believes “that’s what we’re called to do, to reach out to people, to meet their needs as much as we can”.
When Akam realised she needed a much greater supply of food than she could source by herself, she contacted The Felix Project, which operates across London.
In 2022, The Felix Project delivered the equivalent of 29 million meals. It saved more than 12,100 tonnes of fresh and nutritious food from being disposed of by supermarkets, restaurants and farms – food which might have a broken barcode or look wonkier than usual.
Charlotte Hill is the chief executive. “We have found the cost of living crisis has had an even bigger impact than Covid,” she says. “Everybody thought that the pandemic was the crisis of our times.
“The current economic climate is proving to be incredibly tough for so many. The rising costs of rent, mortgages, bills and general living is leaving more and more people unable to afford to feed their families.
“Every single one of the organisations we supply are desperate for more food. In addition, we have over 630 new organisations, of which over a quarter are schools, on our waiting list.”
Shockingly, many schools are in desperate need of food to give to children who show up to class hungry.
Arnhem Wharf Primary School on the Isle of Dogs encapsulates the inequalities in the UK. From the playground you can see the high-rise offices of Canary Wharf. Across the street are apartments that sell for over £1m, while on the other, 75-80% of pupils are on free school meals.
Nahar Rahman has worked here for 22 years and has seen pupils grow up, become parents, and send their children to the school. “As a school home support worker, I have an open surgery for families to come in and see me,” she says. “They talk about what’s happening in their lives. They’re in a lot of debt, they’ve lost their jobs, they’re new to the country. Rent is very high, the cost of living means their salary isn’t enough.
Rahman keeps a list of the most vulnerable families. Between 12 to 15 are on it at the moment, but the food Rahman is able to offer is not always sufficient. “Today, there were onions and potatoes and Marmite. How can a family make a meal out of that?” Rahman has to keep an emergency supply of canned food and toiletries in her classroom cupboard for families who are really desperate.
“I cannot even express how much it is making a difference to our families,” she says, but knows more help is needed. “We’re a five- or six-minute walk to Canary Wharf. Trust me, I’ve been there. I went begging to all the companies and all the stores for donations. And no, it doesn’t work.”
As she speaks, her frustration and anger is clear, but so is her determination and resilience. It is people like Rahman who are going above and beyond and literally saving lives across the country every day.
The long-term solution
Millions of people are hungry. But while giving people food serves an immediate, urgent need, we have to work out how to prevent people ending up in these circumstances in the first place. That’s what Baroness Casey is determined to address.
“This isn’t just about the cost of living crisis. It isn’t about the pandemic. These aren’t emergencies that have come out of nowhere. We’ve had a decade of people struggling,” she says.
“I’ve been worrying for a while about the growth in food banks. I have real mixed feelings about them in the same way that the Trussell Trust does. Food banks shouldn’t exist [but] they are a necessary thing we have to do. I don’t know what we would have done without them.
“In the longer term, I don’t think the answer lies in charity. The Big Issue gives dignity to people because it’s a job, it’s an equal transaction, as opposed to somebody begging on the street. The expression is a hand up, not a handout. And yet, at the same time, the biggest shift in my working lifetime is that poverty has gone from unworking poor to working poor.
“At some point, some government somewhere has to ask, ‘What in god’s name is going on?’ They would put them down as benefit scroungers; the vast majority of these people are working, in receipt of some benefits to keep them above water – and they’re not above water any more.
“We can do a lot better on food waste and food surplus. But when all is said and done, people need wages that can pay them enough. That involves rebuilding the economy, getting jobs that pay, looking at people’s housing – who on earth can afford to live in some of our cities? It gets to a much bigger set of political issues. It’s time we overhauled the welfare benefit system. All of which will take a government – whether it’s the current one re-elected or a new government.
So in the meantime, while all of that is swirling around, the Coronation Food Project, will hopefully do two things: we’ll try and cut food surplus that’s turning into waste. We’ll try and help the sector deal with these situations in difficult times. And we’ll do that for as long as it’s needed.”
The Coronation Food Project will rely upon the generous support of donors. You can find out more by visiting coronationfoodproject.org
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!