It is a shocking indictment of the times we live in when a charity which gives out free food highlights a 20% rise in demand. Fare Share, which redistributes waste and out of date food from manufacturers and retailers to social care charities, so they in turn can pass it on free to people in need, started out initially as an environmental organisation. Its aim was to try to put to good use a tiny fraction – 1% – of the three million tonnes of perfectly edible food thrown away each year.
But as Britain has hit hard times, it has seen its focus shift to the alleviation of poverty. More charities are signing up to receive its food services – the number has risen from 600 to 700 in the last year. These charities are themselves facing unprecedented demand, with one based in Salisbury seeing the number of people it is feeding rise from 41,000 to 61,500. Ironically, many of these same charities are having to cut their food budgets, to stay afloat thanks to one-third of them facing cuts in government funding.
The reasons for increased demand are linked to current government policy: more people are now in poverty thanks to unemployment and a time lag between the claiming of benefits and payments actually being received. Another organisation, the Resolution Foundation think-tank, reckons too that there are more people in work-related poverty, with more than one in five employees not receiving a living wage.
Bad enough that Conservative and Liberal Democrat policies are causing such hardship at home, but it seems they are keen to export such callousness to the continent.
Since 1987, the European Union has operated a “food for free” programme. Initially, the scheme was set up to alleviate hardship during the harsh winter of 1987-88 and use up Europe’s embarrassing food stockpiles of staples like butter, beef, rice and cereals, kept at taxpayers’ expense in warehouses. When food stocks dwindled, following reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, the programme changed in 1995 to become monetized, in that member states – 19 of the 27 in 2008 – participating in the scheme would be allocated a budget which they would then pass on to designated charities operating in their country to use to purchase food on the open market, that they would then give away for free to those in food poverty.
In 2006, 13 million citizens benefited from the food for free scheme across Europe, including pensioners, homeless people, the working poor, asylum seekers, children in poverty and disabled people. By last year, this had risen to 18 million and it is estimated that despite the European Union being one of the world’s largest economies, 43 million people are at risk of food poverty
There is no denying the budget has grown – hugely - from just under 100 million euros in 1988 to over 300 million euros in 2008. But then so too, has the need. Enlargement brought in more, poorer states and we all know how financial and economic meltdown has impacted on some previously relatively wealthy European states. So, throughout 2010, work has been undertaken to reform the scheme again, so that it becomes not just financed by participating countries but now also by the EU itself. Its contribution would be 75% initially, reducing to 50% from 2013. But the reform proposal has been stalled, thanks to opposition by six countries. Including the UK.
The UK does not participate in the scheme – perhaps given what Fare Share revealed this week, it is time it did. And it would appear that for the ConDems, if charity is not to happen at home, they will be making sure it won’t be happening anywhere else either. Who cares if folk on our doorsteps are starving?
The European group of Socialists and Democrats has called foul, and rightly so. Its spokesperson on employment and social affairs, Alejandro Cercas, noted wryly: “The EU has been saving banks and States from their debts, we cannot accept that it turns its back on its poorest citizens who are the most exposed to the effects of the economic crisis.” Quite.
Readers, it would appear that the Nasty Party is back, only this time it has a sidekick in the Liberal Democrats who claim that their presence in the coalition is keeping it civilised. The burd dreads to think what might happen if they weren’t there…
And to Conservative delegates gathering in Manchester for their annual conference? I hope you choke on your champagne.