The Humiliation of Food Poverty: Waste and Want in a Developed Country

An estimated 842 Million people don’t have enough to eat. That is more than the entire population of Australia and Europe combined going to bed hungry on a given day. Food Poverty is a fast spreading malaise. Social Entrepreneur Amira Aleem writes a guest post about the alarming food poverty situation in the U.K., the 7th richest nation in the world.

“Poverty is humiliation, the sense of being dependent and of being forced to accept rudeness, insults, and indifference when we seek help.”a poor woman, Latvia


Almost 25% hike in number of people receiving emergency food in the UK since 2005. Source: Trussell Trust Foodbanks

To people across the world, poverty means different things and manifests in different ways. And as Amartya Sen pointed out years ago what is seen as poverty in one context often is entirely different in another. However, not having enough food to eat or feed your family with will qualify as poverty anywhere in the world.

Just getting down to basics, a staggering 842 Million people do not have enough to eat, a reason for increasing international concern. Contrary to popular notions, food poverty is not restricted to developing nations. Food poverty is growing at an alarming rate in developed nations as well.

In the UK, currently the world’s seventh richest country, food poverty has recently been making headlines as a shocking occurrence. The prevalence of the welfare state, has long acted as a safety net protecting those at the bottom of the pyramid from going without essentials. However, the recent rise in food prices and the cuts to benefit entitlements have meant that more and more Britons (an estimated 500,000) have had to turn to food banks and emergency services for essential nutrition.

A large segment of the demographic in question struggles with everyday necessities such as paying the rent, bills, transport, managing childcare and employment and food budgeting. Often one must be sacrificed for the other, with parents frequently skipping meals so that children can eat warm food. It is a reason for growing concern in the UK. More than the statistics however is the deeply disturbing problem of the associated humiliation for many families, some of whom are in full-time paid employment.

It’s easy to get lost in the statistics and for food poverty in the UK to be seen as largely a breakdown of government policies, of the financial crisis or of poorly managed money. And indeed, it often is a combination of all of these factors. However, what is often overlooked in policy and debate is the delicate power dynamics and the humiliation of working parents having to ask for food.

The way the current system works is that people who are struggling are referred to food banks through frontline workers such as doctors, social workers and schools to receive emergency supplies. The vouchers provide dry goods donated at food banks that cover supplies for approximately three days. Food banks provide crucial support to families on the edge but don’t provide much support to prevent the problem from re-arising.

I launched Souplus to deal with food poverty in a sensible and scalable manner. To me, it was extremely ironic that extreme food poverty co-existed with enormous avoidable food waste in the economy. It is estimated that the UK wastes 15 Million tonnes of food waste every year, 7.5 Million of which is household waste.  A combination of factors including stringent cosmetic standards, food safety laws and retail negligence means that more and more food ends up getting wasted – a huge environmental problem and a crushing waste of money for the economy. Since much of the legislature that exists to protect consumers is quite stringent, there is a surprisingly large potential for the surplus to be salvaged and cycled into the system for more people at need.

During the course of managing and running Souplus, it has been incredibly overwhelming and educational to hear first-hand accounts from families and children walking the breadline in the UK, about their struggles in keeping their families well-cared for under immense economic strain. There are complex and informal channels that families turn to and exhaust before considering reaching out for charity. For many, the idea of asking friends, sisters and mothers is much easier than having to admit to needing a donation.

I have often come across the element of wanting to ‘give back’, with many families regularly donating to charity or feeding the homeless. It is this complicated identity crisis that makes the challenge of addressing food poverty inherently more complicated than handing our food parcels. Food poverty has to be seen as a fundamental failure of the economy to provide a reasonable, low cost service to those who need it most and provide them with a forum to participate as valuable consumers.

There is in fact a shifting trend to address social problems of this nature. There is a slow but steady rise of the private sector in tackling issues of social concern across the world. This begs the question of whether or not there may be a new way to look at the social sector and the problems it faces. The motivations of for-profit organizations to solve social problems through intelligent business engineering are challenging the age-old charity model.

Organizations such as FareShare and FoodCycle have set the precedent for collecting surplus food from retailers and the hospitality industry and donating it to local charities or providing meals in community-centres. A café in Leeds, called ‘The Real Junk Food Project’ has even managed to run an entire café off intercepted food surplus. It’s inspiring to read about the enormous amount of food that has been effectively collected and channeled more efficiently through the system.

souplus logo (1)Amira Aleem is a social entrepreneur who launched Souplus, a startup social enterprise that aims to reduce food wastage and increase nutrition levels for low-income communities in the UK. She cares passionately about using social business models to address food and water insecurity, and human rights in conflict-zones.

Amira was raised in India, and has travelled to different parts of Asia, Europe, America and the Middle East.  She graduated with a Bachelor’s Anthropology and International Development at the University of Sussex.