Xavier Montagut: 'It is possible to tackle food poverty without falling victim of assistance-based practices that make it chronic'

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Luci Vega (Suport Associatiu)
  • Xavier Montagut, president of the Xarxa de Consum Solidari (Solidarity Consumption Network)
    Xavier Montagut, president of the Xarxa de Consum Solidari (Solidarity Consumption Network).
  • Food aesthetic standards  / Photograph: LoggaWiggler, Pixabay
    Food aesthetic standards / Photograph: LoggaWiggler, Pixabay.
  • Supermarket / Photograph: Polycart, Flickr
    Supermarket / Photograph: Polycart, Flickr.
  • Food bank in Sanxenxo, Galicia (Spain) / Photograph: Wikimedia Commons
    Food bank in Sanxenxo, Galicia (Spain) / Photograph: Wikimedia Commons.
  • Community garden in Madrid / Photograph: Huerta Agroecológica Comunitaria "Cantarranas", Flickr
    Community garden in Madrid / Photograph: Huerta Agroecológica Comunitaria "Cantarranas", Flickr.

The president of the Xarxa de Consum Solidari (Solidarity Consumption Network) argues that tackling hunger with leftovers is not effective to combat this problem or to reduce food waste.

Xavier Montagut, the co-author of the book 'Banco de Alimentos ¿combatir el hambre con las sobras?' (Food Bank, combating hunger with leftovers?) studies in this book the role played by agro-industrial production in food waste and brings us a critical approach to the assistance-based practices used to tackle food poverty. The president of the Xarxa de Consum Solidari also comes up with other alternative proposals to combat these problems.

Who’s mainly responsible for food waste?

To find the root of the problem, we must turn on the one hand to the Common Agricultural Policy of the European Union (CAP), which promotes an agriculture that favours and subsidises production in much larger quantities than are needed and, therefore, is contributing to generate a surplus. But we must also point a finger at large supermarket chains that, in practice, send large amounts of food to the rubbish bin.

These large distribution corporations have become the main link in the agro-food chain and are causing a food waste that is twofold: on the one hand, due to the consumption model they promote in their customers and also with the purchase conditions they impose on producers.

What practices carried out by these large chains have led us to this situation?

When talking about food waste we usually think of the food that ends in the rubbish. However, most food waste happens before. Supermarkets force some requirements on farmers that only make this problem worse. They demand that food produce be of a certain shape and colour, but a large amount of the produce does not meet these aesthetic standards, meaning for instance that in the fields a lot of fruit is discarded and thrown away because it’s too small, even if it is good produce. Also, when the distributor makes a planning error, they may refuse to purchase the produce they no longer need by saying, for instance, that the produce does not meet the required quality standards. On the other hand, the ways in which deliveries are made are so harsh that farmers don’t take the risk and produce more to avoid any penalties.

Furthermore, large supermarket chains use mechanisms to increase their sales to shoppers: they sell their produce in packs, they encourage compulsive shopping, etc. which leads shoppers to buy more than they need and this surplus very often goes to waste.

How can we reduce food loss and tackle food poverty through initiatives such as those followed by the federation of food banks?

Using leftovers as a way of ending hunger is a false solution that does not tackle food waste nor does it solve the problem of hunger. The Fundació de Banc d’Aliments (The Food Banks Foundation) has specialised in selling this message (I’m referring here to the Food Bank as a brand, not to other experiences involving banks organised by neighbours such as in Ciutat Meridiana). The discourse they follow is that with leftovers they feed poor people, but this is false. The European Union spends millions buying the surplus produce and in doing this, subsidises it instead of avoiding surplus production. Most of the food that is distributed has been purchased through public funds given to large corporations that offer large quantities of produce that is easy to store and transport; cheap calories.

But are these practices effective to tackle malnutrition and generate change?

In this country we basically have a problem with malnutrition due to diets with an excessive intake of calories, such as diets high in carbohydrates, and not enough fresh produce. The problem is the quality of the food. The Food Bank only provides calories. It is true that now they are starting to offer vegetables that come from the crop surplus, but what a person needs at a given time does not necessarily match the surplus of any given produce. Food needs are concrete and local, and are not met through surplus. Therefore, this practice is not effective from the perspective of tackling malnutrition. And even less so if what we aim for is to transform the structures because, in a situation of poverty, we need to empower the people. And yet, the logic behind the food bank reproduces the logic of welfare that favours taking power away from people, stigmatisation of users and makes poverty and social exclusion chronic.

In this context, what alternatives are being promoted without falling into assistance-based models?

Food poverty can be tackled without following assistance-based models that only make it chronic. One alternative that is growing a lot is that of social and community gardens, that promote the empowerment of people granting them spaces so they can grow their own vegetables and take and active part in managing and developing projects in their communities. In doing so, they boost their self-esteem and autonomy, they learn to be self-organised and are able to supply a part of their own foods. This requires supportive policies and financial aid could help this model advance. There are a number of experiences that show this is a much wiser way forward than giving away food.

Even when there is a high level of marginalisation and the administration has to provide assistance-based aid, it is always better to give money or vouchers than food. This way, people can buy what they really need and also they are not stigmatised. In some municipalities, such as Barberà del Vallès, the city council is already putting this into practice and distributes vouchers to buy food at the market.

More and more, we find proposals that do not establish a difference between volunteers and users, and that provide food and means of getting food through the work of the people affected; this is the case of the gardens I mentioned, or distribution of food in a self-managed way as an act of assertion.

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