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General Synod: motion on food poverty and waste

16 February 2018

The debate urged the Government to ‘be mindful of the problems of food poverty’ in the UK and the excess of edible food wasted

Geoff Crawford/Church Times

The Revd Andrew Dotchin

The Revd Andrew Dotchin

HOUSEHOLDS, supermarkets, and the Government are all in the front line when it comes to tackling wasted food, the Synod has been told.

Introducing a debate on Friday, the Revd Andrew Dotchin (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) moved a motion on behalf of the diocesan synod to combat food wastage. He broke some bread, threw half away, and asked: “Imagine the uproar if what I have just done was a model of our liturgical practice.”

Food-wastage figures in the UK were “appalling”, he said; the worst was waste from their own tables in homes. He asked the Synod to reflect on food that had been uneaten in meals since the beginning of the Synod. Since the July 2016 groups of sessions in York, staff had thrown away 120 packed lunches, ordered but not collected.

Mr Dotchin urged people to “put the poor of the world and the care of God’s good earth” before personal convenience. “Half of the world is starving, and the other half is obese.” They committed six of the seven deadly sins in their attitude to food, he said.

The motion was about “food poverty and food insecurity”. There was no reason not to “feed the world”, as Bob Geldof and Midge Ure had sung 30 years ago. “It is a crime against humanity that we do not so do.” The motion was also about better care for the environment, and for workers in farming and fishing.

All was gloom, he said. But “we have many stories of generosity to celebrate and learn from.” The clause of the motion calling on the Government, particularly DEFRA, to take action was “pushing at an open door”.

Finally, he said, the option was “about not expecting others to act without doing something ourselves”, as immediate change on food waste could “and must” happen in members’ own homes and churches.

Canon Rosemarie Mallett (Southwark) expected to hear about “many wonderful initiatives” for tackling food waste. At her parish school, they used Foodshare to provide meals for children and families. The church also supported a community fridge project, and, later that evening, the Bishop of Woolwich would be helping to pack food for Burkino Faso. “Most of the initiatives we undertake serve not only to redistribute food, but also to alleviate food poverty.”

It was, however, important not to conflate the two. Redistributing surplus food was good, “but that is not a long-term solution to the causes of poverty.” These included low wages, high housing costs, and failures in the benefit system. “In the midst of excess, we need to also keep our eyes on the fact that millions of families are struggling to feed themselves properly.”

The Revd Catherine Pickford (Newcastle) observed that many had not lost connection with the soil, “and we can learn from them.” Farms were a big employer in her area, and the food that children brought to the harvest festival had often been grown on the land that their family had farmed. Farming families were “generally excellent at avoiding waste”, and they could learn from them.

Referring to offers such as “Buy one: get one free,” she said: “Because society is so driven by money, it can be difficult to recognise that, because something is free doesn’t mean it was free to produce.” The huge, 85-per-cent reduction in the use of plastic bags illustrated how behaviour could be changed by a small charge.

Philip French (Rochester) moved three amendments. He wanted to focus on personal responsibility “rather than deflecting to others”; recognise the “subtle” part played by supermarkets; and “conserve parliamentary time, which is under pressure”. He noted that 71 per cent of food wastage took place in homes. His amendments were lost.

Heather Black (York) moved two amendments. As chair of Middlesbrough foodbank, she was conscious of a growing number of people living with food insecurity. Her foodbank was supporting 11 per cent more people than in the previous year. She proposed a broader statement about food waste, and wished to recognise that perishable food was more likely to be used by local charities cooking meals for the hungry than foodbanks. Her amendments were carried.

Clive Scowen (London) reflected that, when the Synod did not like something, “it tends to call on the Government to exercise the coercive power of the State.” Sometimes, this was the only appropriate response, but legislation “can be a very blunt and insensitive instrument, and often there are other ways in which the Government can act more nimbly and achieve much more”. There was evidence that retailers were already engaging with this issue, and they might well respond to further incentives to take voluntary action. His amendment was carried.

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke of a restaurant that had opened in Durham which used discarded food from supermarkets. “We need to celebrate entrepreneurs who are coming up with initiatives like this, and looking at the big questions that Government does have to offer in advice, direction — and, if necessary, legislation,” he said. He also passed on a plea from a hill-farmer friend to return to eating seasonal fruit and vegetables.

The Revd Dr Jason Roach (London) said that, besides loving their neighbours practically by reducing food waste, they could also love them spiritually. His church used a food-recycling scheme as an opportunity to spread the gospel. “As time has gone on, [people using this service] have not only taken this bread, but begun to investigate the Bread of Life in Christ Jesus.”

Isabel Adcock (Chelmsford) bemoaned the younger generation’s insistence on throwing away any food that had passed its best-before date. Her generation had been brought up to check by smelling, looking, and tasting, before throwing anything into the bin. “Could we push the Government to abolish best-before dates?” she asked. “It would certainly take a lot of pressure off me.”

Susan Adeney (Worcester) said that she struggled with the motion, despite its having plenty of good in it. Could it be right to have asparagus from Chile in November, or strawberries from Israel in April? She had even seen spring onions flown in from Peru days after watching spring onions in her local glebe fields being ploughed into the ground. Modern shopping culture had created a year-round harvest, which complicated life for food producers. The motion confused food waste and food poverty, which were two complex separate issues.

Gavin Oldham (Oxford) sought to draw attention to the plight of one million lonely pensioners in Britain. Before the Second World War, the Church of England had a huge programme of home visiting to care for such people; but it had been abandoned when the modern welfare state was created. Could it not be re-established, he asked, so that vulnerable, lonely, and starving people were not exluded from the harvest?

The motion was clearly carried. It read:

That this Synod, mindful of the problems of food poverty in Britain today and the excessive tonnage of edible food wasted throughout the food supply chain:

(a) affirm the biblical principle of ensuring that the poor and vulnerable are not excluded from the harvest;

(b) commend those retailers who are working creatively with food banks and local charities to distribute food that might otherwise be wasted;

(c) urge all dioceses and parishes to work with other voluntary initiatives to lobby for all local food retailers to review their policy on waste food so that the amount made available to combat food poverty is maximized;

d) request Her Majesty’s Government to consider how it might most effectively act to minimize food waste by food retailers, whether by encouraging voluntary action, taking fiscal measures or, if necessary, bringing forward legislation; and

(e) call upon all church members to use food resources responsibly and minimize waste in their own homes.

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