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6 September 2019updated 09 Sep 2021 1:20pm

Hashtag hunger: Are Britain’s supermarkets profiting from food poverty this Christmas?

By Jane Middleton

“Christmas is a time for giving,” says Sainsbury’s, but it’s notable that the multi-billion-pound supermarket business isn’t doing much of the giving itself. Instead, its “Help Brighten a Million Christmases” campaign urges customers to “#ShopForOthers” – with a target of one million donations in Sainsbury’s and Argos stores.

The hashtag #ShopForOthers was trending on Twitter last week. Customers were exhorted to “share the joy of giving” by posting online pictures of the items they donated instore, building “a movement that makes shopping for others as instinctive as shopping for oneself”.

So keen is the supermarket chain to encourage the nation’s philanthropic urges that it is also setting up a Sainsbury’s Giving Store – a “magical festive pop-up shop”, where customers purchase items for others and leave empty-handed.

You don’t have to be Scrooge to take the view that this will not so much “brighten a million Christmases” as put a shine on Sainsbury’s profits. Although its website states that goods bought elsewhere can be left at instore collection points, its promotional video fails to mention this.

Everything points to a bumper Christmas for Sainsbury’s, coasting on a wave of customer generosity.

If this helps end hunger, though, then where’s the harm? The trouble is, it doesn’t. Food poverty is rocketing, with 8.4m of us living in households that are food insecure. Worse, a scheme like this distracts from the root causes, making change harder to achieve.

The solutions to food poverty cannot be found in an individual’s shopping basket. The growth of foodbanks has resulted from political decisions and demands a political response. Increasing inequality has been exacerbated by poor quality jobs and a benefits system that is now the biggest cause of destitution rather than a safeguard against it.

Just days away from a general election, we should be holding politicians to account on this. Yet, as researcher Chris Moller has pointed out, responsibility is being relocated from the collective/political to the individual/private sphere. This depoliticisation of food poverty lets government off the hook. Conservative politicians applaud the good work of foodbank volunteers while refusing to take responsibility for the fact that they are needed.

Charitable giving cannot erase the shame felt by many forced to rely on foodbanks. As a food bank volunteer, I have never met anyone who wants to be there. I know how difficult it can be even to walk through the door.

Nor does charity reach those suffering “hidden hunger”. Has the marketing team behind #ShopForOthers considered that its customers include those who can barely afford to shop for themselves? Instead of bringing communities together, “pop-up giving stores” and the like reinforce the divide between the haves and have-nots.

Sabine Goodwin from the Independent Food Aid Network comments: “‘Othering’ is not what’s needed. Everyone has the right to go to a shop and make their own food choices.”

That includes the right to a nutritious diet – hard to achieve when you’re surviving on donated tins and packets.

The right to food is included in the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, with the state responsible for fulfilling it. Yet UK campaigners are increasingly concerned that we are about to embrace the American model of foodbanking – where charitable food aid is institutionalised and big business profits handsomely from siphoning off food waste to feed the poor, all the while burnishing its “caring” credentials.

Ending poverty is “not a matter of charity but a question of justice”, warned UN Secretary-General António Guterres last year. Justice means ensuring a sustainable food system to which everyone has economic access. It means we are citizens with rights, not mere consumers.

If Sainsbury’s wants to fight food poverty, it could, with underlying profits of £635m, donate to charities campaigning to end it. It could lobby for political action (the British Poultry Council, for example, campaigns for the implementation of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals). And it could review its employment practices: last year, it made the decision to scrap paid breaks among other benefits.

As Goodwin says: “Supermarkets should be paying decent wages and prevent their own workers from needing foodbanks. This is profiting from food insecurity.”

And what can we do about food poverty? We can donate food while acknowledging that it tackles a symptom, not the cause. Help our local foodbank while campaigning for it not to be needed. Support organisations fighting to end hunger. Change the conversation – from food charity to food justice. Instead of #ShopForOthers, let’s ensure that everyone can shop for themselves.

A Sainsbury’s spokesperson comments:

“This insight-based campaign builds on our food donation programme, which runs year-round, and encourages people to donate new toys and non-perishable food items from any store in the UK – not just Sainsbury’s or Argos.

“We’ve built over 2,250 ‘Food Donation Partnerships’ with local charities, allowing us to donate surplus food throughout the year to food banks, soup kitchens, homeless centres, community cafés and larger charities.”

Jane Middleton is a food writer and campaigner and a former cookery editor. She tweets @cinnamontoastuk.

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