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Help the Hungry: UK food waste czar Ben Elliot warns coronavirus pandemic could leave millions hungry

Eight million British people face food insecurity and 3 million have already gone hungry since the lockdown, according to the Food Foundation, writes Arjun Neil Alim

Saturday 18 April 2020 21:46 BST
Food waste czar Ben Elliot with Felix Project chief executive Mark Curtin and Lady Bamford at the Daylesford Harvest Festival
Food waste czar Ben Elliot with Felix Project chief executive Mark Curtin and Lady Bamford at the Daylesford Harvest Festival (Supplied)

At the end of 2018, the then secretary of state for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Michael Gove, announced the creation of the volunteer role of “food surplus and waste champion”. Ben Elliot, co-founder of global luxury concierge company Quintessentially and nephew of the Duchess of Cornwall, was to be first in post.

He recalls having “pestered” Michael Gove back in 2016 that the government should create a fund to assist food redistribution. He questioned whether the UK’s commitment to be carbon neutral by 2050 was possible without massive action on food wastage, “the carbon emissions that come from food waste are the equivalent of every third motor car on the road”.

The Evening Standard and The Independent’s 2016 Food for London Now campaign played a part in convincing him that something had to be done. “I remember once walking home in London and seeing bags of food being ushered out of a café, and literally seven metres away there was a group of homeless people. It just seemed mad.”

He tells me, over a crackly conference call line, that as food surplus and waste champion, he has spent 13 months working with manufacturers, retailers and households to sign them up to waste less food.

He hails charities like the Felix Project, the Evening Standard and The Independent’s campaign partner, for their “clever, simple, straightforward method of taking surplus from retail, manufacturers, hospitality and redistributing it to community groups”.

I suggest his role within government is that of a convener and he agrees wholeheartedly. “I have been a cheerleader and an evangelist for charities like Felix to raise their profile and also cajoling retailers, hospitality groups and donors to support them”.

Lady Bamford, the businesswoman behind Daylesford Organic and the Lady Bamford Charitable Trust, which supports the Felix Project, confesses to me that she is a huge admirer of his work. “He is one of the most hard-working people I know. Everything he does he believes in passionately, throwing himself in with vigour, empathy and from a genuine belief that it is worthwhile.

“His work as food waste champion for the government is just another example of his exceptional work, drawing the attention of all generations to a problem that urgently needs to be tackled, and one that is even more relevant during these times.”

“Only in a crisis do things actually change in society”, Mr Elliot adds after a pause. Last week he wrote a letter to all the large supermarkets and retailers asking them to be more flexible about best before dates and to work more closely with redistributors. He uses the example of the NHS Nightingale hospital in east London – “can you imagine how long it would have taken to be built in peacetime?”.

According to the Food Foundation, 8.1 million people face food insecurity and three million have already gone hungry since the lockdown. Mr Elliot says that he has heard talk that the number of food insecure people could double if the crisis continues. He also predicts issues with the supply of dairy, fruit and vegetables “because of shortages of workers”.

So what is the government doing to prepare for this impending hunger epidemic? At the beginning of this month, Defra launched a £3.25m fund to support organisations redistribute 14,000 tonnes of surplus stock around the country. This is in addition to a £15m scheme launched at the end of 2018 to tackle food waste.

I ask him if he thinks the government should step in and play a larger role in a sector dominated by charities. “Yes I do”, he says. “What you’ll see is both the DWP (responsible for food banks) and Defra (responsible for food redistribution) working much more closely together.”

“And I’ll be lobbying for that”, he adds. Mr Elliot has also been co-chairman of the Conservative Party since July 2019. He predicts that a case will be made for more government funding of organisations like the Felix Project, City Harvest and Fareshare, the three charities that make up the London Food Alliance.

Education is also a key battleground against food waste. “I’ve got two young sons,” he says. “They can both explain to me that there might be by 2050 more plastic in the ocean than fish. When it comes to food waste it is very difficult to have that conversation at a school level.”

But in the short term, this is a battle to keep people fed in a country that is facing a historic depression. “There are huge swathes of our population for whom food is not a luxury, It’s a necessity. At the moment there is a public desire to support frontline workers in hospitals, and that won’t go away.”

But he warns: “The size of the problem will be in the wider society dealing with millions of people as opposed to tens of thousands of frontline health workers.”

The light at the end of the tunnel for him is the model of the Felix Project and other charities, which receive some government money, work well with big businesses and are also adept at cutting through bureaucracy.

“It’s very rare in our society where you see all those parts joining up in a common effort,” he says.

Justin Byam Shaw, the founder of the Felix Project, writes to me: “The response of voluntary organisations to this growing hunger crisis has been extraordinary.

“And in the background all the time has been Ben, persuading the government, cajoling food industry CEOs and arm-twisting donors. He’s one of the secret heroes of this amazing response to what would otherwise have been a major public disaster.”

Ben Elliot seems to spend his whole day engaging people and organisations, urging them to change and act faster than before.

Will this be enough to stymie the wave of food poverty the government is braced for? He tells me, chuckling: “I’ve bored people into submission, irritated them and just cajoled them, and that’s what I’ll keep on doing.”

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