Feeding the Problem: Community, Charity and Corporations

Words by Elara Shurety; Illustration by Ada Jusic

Good morning and welcome to Vittles Season 3: You and I Eat Differently. A reminder that the new rate for contributors this season is £350 for writers and £100 for illustrators.

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I must admit, each time I send out a newsletter that I think may generate a small amount of controversy, I hold my breath in anticipation of Vittles finally being cancelled. So far I’ve been fairly disappointed by the level of critique and I hope it improves. Lewis Bassett’s excellent article Fine Dining two weeks ago, for instance, provoked a huge amount of debate on social media, mainly positive, and many chefs wrote in privately to say they recognised much of the behaviour that the article discusses. In my opinion, that newsletter deserved more thoughtful criticism than a food editor at a national newspaper essentially doing a “you want to improve society yet I see you participate in it” argument, except not as nuanced.

The argument (that Vittles hypocritically pays people for writing critiques of capitalism) does unintentionally throw up an interesting issue of participation vs collusion, one which is explored in today’s newsletter by Elara Shurety. The cliché that there is “no ethical consumption under capitalism” is a line that has somehow been used to undermine the point that it’s making: that every decision we make involves variegated shades of grey and a series of trade offs that we must personally negotiate. That there is no white doesn’t mean that everything is black. At some point on this spectrum, participation in an unfair and inequitable system does start to look like collusion in that system ─ it is in identifying where that point is, among almost imperceptibly different hues, that starts the conversation about how things can be improved.

Today’s newsletter is about the recent FSM (free school meals scandal), and how the easy binary solutions that the media have set up (corporations ─ bad, charities ─ good) seek to obscure a tangled web of interconnectedness which means you cannot seriously pose one as a solution to the other. This is a world where ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) funds, including those of today’s FSM villain, Compass Group, allow charitable and corporate interests to neatly dovetail under the banner of doing community good. But, in the light of recent events, it’s worth asking how much of this work is simply masking extractive and inequitable processes further along the chain. This is not to undermine the good work that charities (and even some corporations!) do, but we must ask ourselves who their visions of community truly benefit, and press down hard, like on a sensitive nerve, on that point where participation in an unfair system stops just being participation.

Feeding the Problem: Community, Charity and Corporations, by Elara Shurety

On 12 January 2021, an anonymous account named @RoadsideMum posted an image on Twitter of their child’s free school meal allocation, intended to last the next ten days. The parcel contained: three apples, two carrots, two potatoes, a single tomato, three Frubes, two Soreen bars, some cling-filmed cheese and a half-filled sandwich bag of dry pasta. Within hours, the post had gone viral. Soon similar images came flooding in: single or halved vegetables, bags of portioned-off carbohydrates, tins of baked beans. 

Many of these meagre allotments had been supplied by Chartwells, one of the private companies that was contracted by the government to provide free school meals, and a subsidiary of the Compass Group. The group’s website makes claims of supplying ‘nutritious, fun and tasty meals’, with drop-down menus inviting you to ‘Meet’ and ‘Join’ the ‘Family’, while its corporate responsibility report talks proudly of ‘enriching local communities’. Yet, upon looking into the company, you might be hard-pressed to work out the extent of what they actually offer – or, indeed, who they are. 

Behind Compass’s façade of intimacy and charitable community work, the group is, in fact, the largest food contract service in the world. Not only that, but it also has a string of historical controversies attached to its name, stretching from inadequate hospital food in New Zealand to providing food containing harmful bacteria to prisons in Canada. Most recently, it has been in the press for refusing to pay self-isolating employees during the pandemic. Despite all of this, the Compass Group insists on making appeals to family and community values on its website and promotional media. 

‘Family’ and ‘community’ are muddy words, with the latter in particular becoming increasingly depoliticised, a catch-all that can be used in any context. They are terms that have been used in political appeals from both the right and the left, spanning a seemingly endless ideological spectrum. And while the free school meals scandal has been written off as an anomaly – either of an irresponsible company, or of a particularly heartless government – the blurring of corporate and community interests it demonstrates is part of a wider trend, one that stretches back decades. 

Perhaps the most obvious political mobilisation of this paradox was David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, a policy-cum-ideology of conservative communitarianism that, through various initiatives including government awards for community work, sought to bring these two factions together. Yet for many of us, the Tory and coalition governments that brought in years of austerity are not what we think of when we talk about ‘community’. The legacy of the Big Society is not broad-based networks of mutual aid, but reliance on two seemingly unconnected models: private corporations like the Compass Group that are taking over the responsibilities of the state, and the philanthropy of the middle classes. While these models may appear disparate, especially as calls mount for a charity-based solution to FSM, they have become increasingly entangled in a Gordian knot; it is impossible to talk of one without the other. 

Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic nearly a year ago, there has been a sharp rise in the word ‘community’ being tied to food projects. These projects are incredibly varied, from gardens to kitchens to food hubs, but despite their differences, they often share a common list of benefits: food security, sustainability, social justice, and improvements in physical and mental health. Growing too are the number of larger charities that operate within the food sector, and which also rely on this rhetoric of the ‘community’, redistributing waste and surplus food through smaller, localised community projects, schools, and sometimes their own hubs. These include FoodCycle (incidentally, a recipient of the ‘Big Society Award’ in 2011), The Felix Project, and FareShare, the largest food waste charity in the UK, with the latter two having already been put forward as alternatives for the provision of free school meals. 

You might assume that these charitable projects exist independently from corporate interests, but this is not the case. Projects like FoodCycle, The Felix Project, and FareShare, as well as many other smaller community food initiatives in the UK, not only receive the vast majority of their food from supermarkets and large chains, but are part of a complex ecosystem that relies on the alignment of corporate and charitable interests. This is an ecosystem where The Felix Project can partner with the Evening Standard, a newspaper which has supported (and in George Osborne’s case, rewarded) the austerity policies that make the project’s existence necessary. And it’s one where FareShare can work with Marcus Rashford to solve a problem caused by the Compass Group, while also accepting ten tonnes of food donations since 2014 from their corporate partner … the Compass Group. 

Despite these dubious links, the redistribution of food that would otherwise have gone to waste does seem to be an efficient use of scarce resources. Yet, while this work is very welcome, the academic Leda Cooks, in an article for Gastronomica, posits that projects that rely on distributing surplus waste are one of the weakest forms of food justice, arguing that they ‘maintain inequities in the food system’, particularly with regard to issues such as social justice and autonomy over one's diet. They fill in the system’s gaps, rather than trying to change the system itself.  A friend who has been volunteering at her local food bank told me of the surplus donations they receive; chiefly, endless sachets of almond butter from Pret that come in at a rate much faster than they are taken. Here, while a chain like Pret gets an image boost – not to mention tax relief – for their donations, food hubs or food banks are often left with items that are neither useful nor hugely desirable. 

In the newsletter ‘On Community’, the food writer Alicia Kennedy argues that ‘the word “community” is [often] invoked as a catch-all, a means of virtue-washing capitalist or charity-based endeavors’. You only need to look at the large donor and corporate partners of food redistribution initiatives to see this is true: FoodCycle’s corporate partners include Amazon’s Whole Foods Market and JustEat while, alongside banks and private investment firms, The Felix Project names Uber and Deliveroo on its list of ‘great organisations’. 

Meanwhile, the workers of these organisations are left in the lurch. In 2018, the founder of homelessness charity Friends of Essex told the Independent that Deliveroo drivers often visited them for food handouts. Businesses like Uber and Deliveroo operate on a gig economy model – offering their workers greater flexibility, but denying them vital rights and protections; for instance, restricting sick pay even while isolating in a pandemic. It’s hard not to take issue with these companies being allowed to clean up their image through food charity partnerships, while driving their workers into the very same conditions that make these initiatives necessary.

Concerns about donations and funding and how this shapes the growing landscape of food initiatives is not an inconsequential matter. In Andy Fisher’s Big Hunger. Here, organisers and charity workers alike voice their concerns, not only about the moral ‘cleanliness’ of such donations or partnerships, but the effect it can have on freedom of speech, with many workers stating that they feel unable to communicate more politically robust messages regarding issues like living wages or housing. In broad terms, the ‘vision’ of a well-fed city is simply incompatible with the existence of the companies that big charities are grateful to accept donations from.

For small community food initiatives, corporate donations and corporate volunteering obviously represent massive income opportunities. As community services are increasingly defunded from both national and local sources, and resources are stretched further and further, it’s hard to point the finger of blame at smaller organisations trying to provide space and services within their local area. But I am interested in how larger organisations, which are in a position to be more selective, can justify accepting such donations. While most didn’t reply to a request for comment, The Felix Project’s CEO Mark Curtin offered this response when pressed on donations from Deliveroo and Uber: 

Our vision is a London where no one goes hungry and good food is never wasted . . . Hunger and malnutrition is a complex issue and there are multiple factors that come into play, including issues like mental health and addiction . . . We are very grateful to all of our partners, donors and supporters for their generosity and commitment to helping us achieve our vision and for helping to feed London.

Instead of addressing the structural issues, individual ‘failings’ like addiction and mental health are foregrounded. A narrow focus on how these companies help The Felix Project ‘achieve their mission’ ignores the fact that these same companies are complicit in the creation of a London where many go hungry. For smaller charities, it is possible to attribute this dissonance to a pragmatic ‘deal with the devil’, where they must choose the most efficient way to promote themselves on meagre resources. But for The Felix Project, the dissonance is more likely explained by it being founded by Justin Byam Shaw, who happens to be the Chair of the ESI group – which happens to own the Evening Standard.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, the history of alternative and community food projects was, for the most part, one of radicalism (both political and religious) ─ of activists attempting to address the impacts of racism, social exclusion and economic inequality in their communities. We’re now seeing these same ideas and initiatives co-opted and corporatised by the very entities who are complicit in producing said inequality. FoodCycle’s most recent impact report references the Eden Project when citing the importance of community – because disconnected communities ‘could be costing the UK economy £32 billion per year’. ‘Community’ here is invoked not as a challenge to the status quo, but with regard to its supposed cost-saving impact: more ‘productive’ people, less spent on policing, and less spent on healthcare – or, to put it another way, an absolution of the state’s responsibilities. 

It is not incidental that this use of ‘community’ can be shared by extractive corporations like Compass Group and well-meaning charities alike. And while recent calls for turning to these charities edge us in the right direction when it comes to food poverty, we need to be careful we’re not turning to solutions that uphold the same systemic problem. For Dee Woods, the co-founder of Granville Community Kitchen in South Kilburn, the idea that a community food project should go beyond simply feeding people is a major distinction between those who talk about community and those who live it. Dee calls it ‘Community with a “Big C”’, which she characterises as ‘slow’ and ‘deep’ (the Granville project has been in action for over thirty years). Touching upon this tension of difference between how the Granville operates versus other, newer, food initiatives, she characterises the problem as lying within community organisations that operate with a ‘little c’ but ‘big money’, with the expectation that people will come to them. Yet small organisations are still reliant on funding to survive, and the scarcity of it often leaves little choice if places like the Granville are to continue providing the important services they do. 

Rachel Dring from Growing Communities, a food-box scheme based in the Hackney area, expresses further doubts about food waste redistribution models. She argues that while ‘it’s a great thing because it’s reducing food that might go into landfill’, it’s still ‘supporting a system of food waste that’s inherent in a supermarket system’. Rather than relying on supermarket surplus, initiatives like Growing Communities focus on trying to imagine a better system, where waste is sidestepped because no food is rejected from farmers. However, the price point of some food boxes remains a prohibitive barrier for many. Supporting smaller farms, and paying workers a living wage, as Growing Communities does, comes at a cost. 

In early March 2020 I, like many others, began working on building a mutual-aid network in my community, supporting our neighbours through sharing resources and time. Such mutual-aid initiatives across the country have shown an approach to food that focuses on solidarity, rather than a communitarian charity-based method. While many of these systems are in their infancy, their basis provides hope for food models that could carve out new conceptions of how we relate to food, and each other. But these too are not without their own weaknesses; their reliance on people’s time to contribute can end up skewing the steering of these networks to the more time-rich and middle-class within a community. And, while these efforts and organising frequently emerge in times of crisis, they often lack the long-term goals to avoid fizzling out as life calms once again. 

If we want the word ‘community’ to mean something more, we need radical approaches to food that can exist without a reliance on those who contribute to the root causes of widespread hunger. We need to resist the constant washing of extractive practices under the guise of community good, whether it’s corporate entities talking about community directly, or food projects being funded by them. While moments of resistance within community food initiatives demonstrate that such work is possible under certain conditions, they often remain just that – moments. Ultimately, a ‘community’ solution to food cannot exist without a rise in the minimum wage, better social housing, and improvements to basic services nationwide. Without this, these organisations are merely a bandage over a gaping wound – and one that might not stick for much longer.     


Elara Shurety is a graduate student at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths and part time library worker. She is part of the Save Latin Village campaign in Seven Sisters. You can find her on Twitter at @elaraks

The illustration is by Ada Jusic, who specialises in illustrations with a political or social context. You can find more of her illustrations at https://adajusic.com/ . 

Additional Reading:

Alicia Kennedy - On Community

Andrew Fisher - Big Hunger: The Unholy Alliance Between Corporate America and Anti-Hunger Groups

Leda Cooks - Food Savers or Food Saviors

Investors Chronicle - Compass Group: ESG Halo Slips?

Robert Armstrong - The Fallacy of ESG investing