Source: The Oxford Food BankOver 4,000 people in Oxfordshire use food banks annually and the Oxford Food Bank in particular serves nearly 7,000 meals per week to underserved families and individuals. Nationwide, the number of people who rely on food support programmes inflates to 500,000 people, yet at the same time 15 million tons of food and drink are wasted per year. These figures are unequivocally at odds with each other. This dissertation explores food banks as a model to address both environmental impacts associated with food waste and social inequities in the system, asking if food redistribution organizations contribute to environmental sustainability in food systems. The author made the important distinction between ‘waste’ and ‘surplus’ – a point echoed in the Feeding the Gaps report – and argued that reconceptualizing “unwanted but edible food” as surplus rather than waste reinforces its potential use.

Unlike the usual model of community food banks, which receive donations generally of non-perishable grocery staples, the Oxford Food Bank (OFB) collects fresh foods that would otherwise go to waste from retailers and wholesalers and then provisions local organizations. In this respect, it functions in both social and environmental domains, and demonstrates the complementarity of welfare supports and sustainable food systems. Based on a footprinting exercise, OFB reincorporates 250 tonnes of emitted CO2, 72,000 cubic metres of water, and 31 hectares of land per year into the food supply chain. While this pales in comparison to the scale of food waste in the UK on the whole, it indicates that redistribution efforts can play a pivotal role as part of a broader food waste reduction strategy. Assessing the impacts in relation to targets for waste reduction in the retail sector (rather than the entire food system) makes a stronger case; when considered under a UK-wide scaled-up scenario, food redistribution models actually contribute a significant portion toward meeting edible food waste reduction goals.

Furthermore, according to semi-structured interviews, organisations that received OFB donations expressed greater agency and capacity to provide high quality and healthy meals, with more variety and less meat. These organizations include community cafés, education and training institutions, community outreach centres, religious or cultural organizations, and health support organizations, 60% of which provide food directly to individuals experiencing food poverty. Anecdotal evidence also indicated that the individuals being served felt augmented ability to use fresh produce and rely less on processed foods. Community-building and financial savings were also key benefits among organizations that arose through the interviews.

Bissett, A. 2014. Evaluating the Contribution of Fresh Food Redistribution Organisations to the Environmental Sustainability of Food Systems: A Study of the Oxford Food Bank. Dissertation in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of MSc in Environmental Change and Management. Oxford: Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

Photo credit: The Oxford Food Bank