Food for Thought

The food and drink industry is the largest in the UK, so why do more than 1 million people rely on food aid? There's a better way, argues Robbie Davison – and it's coming to Liverpool...

Food for Thought

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Which is worse… living in a country ravaged by famine with no chance of sourcing food, or living here in food poverty – surrounded by food, yet with no means to buy it? It’s a fact that there is more than enough food to feed everyone the world over, but those with the power to make it happen don’t want to do so. For new thinking to appear, change will either start small and gather pace, or some big businesses will see profits dip and adjust to find a solution. Both are happening now.

We live in an economy where the balance of power between labour and capital has tilted decisively in the favour of the latter. The economy is now about ‘flexibility’; that means reforming welfare, lowering wages, and offering fewer long-term job opportunities. Around 80% of jobs created in the past year have been for the self-employed – with the suspicion that many of those running their own businesses are doing so involuntary.

Within this ‘flexible’ climate, Merseyside languishes behind other comparable regions in terms of employment generation. In the past 20 years Merseyside has lost, and not replaced, many of the big employment engines that used to offer secure employment for thousands of people. Within this shift, massive industries such as food production have seen an even greater downturn, losing nearly a quarter of its former capacity in just four years, at a time when the national average is just 1%. 

These shifts leave behind a local economy that is an importer rather than a producer of goods and services. It makes the local economy far more vulnerable, as it relies on outside industries, which have other suitors, staying loyal to the area. Stability and growth require businesses to produce locally and for new types of enterprise that can see a market opportunity to avoid the import trend.  

The food and drink industry is the largest in the UK. As a nation, we spend more on foodstuffs than Germany – which has 20m more people than us. It’s a profitable game. It is an industry that is slick at joining-up the things it wants to: keeping the shelves stacked, serving the best food with the best service if the price and profit is right. Yet this same industry contributes over four million tonnes of food into nothing more than waste each year – redistributing only 2% for public good when countries such as France manage up to 40%. With people needing jobs and others going hungry – real change is required.

The UK now has over 1 million people regularly relying upon food aid. That’s ten full Wembley stadiums of people in food poverty, relying on free food because they have no other means to obtain it. They are often hard-working people with dependent children; children who are starving as they wake up and make their way to school. These children are having their potential stolen because they are unable to concentrate due to hunger. Here, in the UK – the sixth richest nation in the world. 

Crisis is becoming an industry in itself, but it is no more than charity and charity never solves problems, it only ever responds – it’s a sticking plaster. Liverpool has 14 ‘official’ food banks, with more in the pipeline. Most are settling in for the long term with no plans to improve their offer. This is an offer that that thinks it is OK to tell people who are very hungry to pour tins of tomato or chicken soup over pasta to create a ‘family’ meal. Take a moment to think about this… soup over pasta for a family meal?! This ‘food offer’ is almost a bad as there being food poverty in the first place. 

It is a story full of waste – the cast-off food of the food industry being recycled to become the food of no choice for people who have nothing else worth eating.

Imagine for a moment that there was a plan and it was about feeding people good food. Moreover, imagine that this plan used the economic power of the food industry to change all this for the better, and along the way create well-paid jobs… At the heart of the solution is what people call the circular economy – each element of the food production cycle is connected – from production, through sales, into recycling, onto reuse.While the method is available to use, time after time big business pushes the solutions away because there’s no profit in it. But things are about to change. We have rising food costs coupled with people with less money to spend – and thus the profits of some of the big supermarkets like Tesco are taking a dip. All of a sudden there is real interest to try something different, and maybe something local?

At Can Cook we’ve spent the past two years researching what the circular economy looks like when it works well. We have taken a close look at what is happening in the best examples in North America, who do it well – take a look at DC Kitchens for a strong example of food being produced and re-used for significant public benefit. 

Taking the DC Kitchens route, we want to find actual solutions. To start off, we have re-imagined how food could be used to regenerate; feeding people, developing new services, paying people good wages – it’s a story of going back to basics to produce food that people want to eat at a price they can afford. 

As a result, we’re launching two Food Hubs – each will have its own circular economy, producing and selling food using the best techniques of the food industry and recycling to avoid the worst. We will produce all of our own food to offer tasty healthier meals to those who’re struggling to make ends meet. Each Food Hub will have its own local shop and bakery. We believe true change should start small. We believe that gaining some local momentum, using the profit margin from food to do something much more useful and positive than simply generating shareholder value. 

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Robbie Davison is a director of Can Cook, a Liverpool-based social enterprise at the forefront of food poverty action. Its services include ‘Kitchen Share’, an incubator for small food businesses, a range of mobile food production units, and a campaign to ‘Teach Liverpool to Cook’ – in communities, schools and its own cookery studio.

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