In 2019 The Global FoodBanking Network (GFN) released the first study of its kind to quantify the collective worldwide impact of more than 1,000 food banks in nearly 60 countries, including those in the GFN, European Food Banks Federation (FEBA), and Feeding America networks. The study, Waste Not Want Not: Food Banks as a Green Solution to Hunger, showed how food banks impact the communities they serve, providing a green solution to hunger and food insecurity while reducing unnecessary food loss.
This year’s updated study, Advancing the Sustainable Development Goals: Roadmap to 2030, provides new data from 2019 documenting the progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of zero hunger (SDG 2) and reduced food waste (SDG Target 12.3). The new study shows that the global impact of food banks continues to grow. It includes data from 14 new food banking organizations in 10 countries in emerging and developing economies, bringing the total number of countries covered in this study to 70. In 2019 GFN members across 44 nations and six continents expanded their services to ultimately reach 16.9 million people, an increase of 76 percent over 2018.
Overall, from 2018 to 2019 food banks served an additional 4 million people worldwide, redirected an additional 1.07 million metric tons of food from landfills to the hungry, and prevented an estimated 1.85 billion more kilograms of greenhouses gases from entering the atmosphere. Given increased economic and food system instability related to COVID-19, the expansion of the food bank model, especially in underserved communities lacking adequate social protections or food access, is crucial to future resilience and stronger communities. Below is the estimated global impact as it stands today.
The findings offer a way forward and illustrate the importance of food banks in helping vulnerable communities and strengthening food systems in the wake of profound worldwide disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. As community-based nonprofit organizations working through networks of local charities and grassroots organizations, food banks represent a “triple-win” in the communities where they operate: (1) reducing food wastage and protecting the environment, (2) providing food assistance to hungry and vulnerable people, and (3) strengthening civil society through support of local humanitarian charities.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, nearly 690 million people were hungry, up by 10 million people in one year and by nearly 60 million in five years.1 An estimated 2 billion people suffered from food insecurity—the lack of regular access to healthy or sufficient food—in communities across the globe. The prevalence of moderate and severe levels of food insecurity, pre-COVID-19, was estimated to be 25.9 percent worldwide, with virtually no country unaffected. Regional estimates of moderate to severe food insecurity include more than 1 billion people in Asia, 675 million in Africa, 205 million in Latin America and the Caribbean, 88 million in Northern America and Europe, and 5.9 million in Oceania.2
Meanwhile, 1.6 billion tons of food are being lost and wasted, and the trendline is going up. Modeling conducted by Boston Consulting Group using data from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations projects that the volume of food loss and waste will rise 1.9 percent annually from 2015 to 2030.3 The modeling was conducted pre-COVID-19 and could not account for the substantial food supply chain disruptions that have occurred, leading to significant food loss and waste as commercial markets faltered.
Before the pandemic, the state of global food insecurity and hunger was a humanitarian crisis. FAO has observed: “The world is not on track to achieve Zero Hunger by 2030. If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger would surpass 840 million by 2030.”4
In absolute numbers, the number of people suffering from hunger has continued to rise since 2014. At the same time, the amount of food wasted was enough to feed more than a billion hungry people. Food loss and waste is a preventable environmental crisis and contributor to climate change. Precious land, water, energy, and labor resources used to produce food are lost to food wastage. Food loss/waste (FLW) amounts to roughly $990 billion worldwide and produces the equivalent of 3.3 billion tons of greenhouse gases, exacerbating climate change.5 Climate variability, extremes, and shocks brought by climate change are, in turn, key drivers of the recent rise in global hunger.6
The novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has produced a public health, economic, and humanitarian crisis unprecedented in modern times. The pandemic has impacted lives and livelihoods worldwide, destabilizing economies and food systems, with devastating effect on the most vulnerable populations. In 2020 global growth is projected to decline 4.9 percent.7 An additional 140 million people could be driven into extreme poverty,8 and an additional 83 to 132 million people could go hungry.9 FAO has warned of a looming food crisis accompanying the pandemic and called on governments to implement policies to mitigate food system failures and food access concerns.10 Because the poorest among us suffer disproportionately, many of those newly pushed into extreme poverty will be in countries with already high rates of poverty: nearly half will be in South Asia and more than a third in Sub-Saharan Africa.11
Communities across the world—in advanced economies and emerging and developing market countries alike—have been hit with back-to-back food system shocks. Disruption has led to food waste and lack of food access as millions of people lose incomes and increasingly need help. COVID-19-related disturbances to the global food supply chain have a profound local effect. Although global food prices are largely stable, country-level disruptions in production and loss of incomes threaten food security.12 The impact can be seen in the local restaurant or school that closes, the local grocery store or market with empty shelves and stalls, and the local farmer who loses a market to sell to or lacks laborers to harvest a field.
Government policies designed to contain spread of the virus, like shelter-in-place orders and the restriction of mass gatherings, ultimately impact every level of the supply chain from farm labor to transportation to food service.13 As a result, food wastage is growing in advanced economies and emerging markets alike.14 Changes in individual and institutional food service and the hospitality industry mean that restaurants, schools, and travel and tourism businesses no longer need the quantities of food they did pre-COVID-19.15
In the United States, for example, estimates from the dairy industry suggest farmers may have dumped as much as 14 million liters of milk a day during the early stages of the COVID-19 emergency.16 Farmers and livestock producers witnessed severe market disruptions in China, Ethiopia, Nigeria, and many other parts of the world.17 A survey of farmers across nine states in India found that among those who had harvested some produce this season, 29 percent held stocks for future sale, 13 percent sold the harvests at substantially diminished prices, and about 7 percent let the produce go to waste or left it unharvested.18 Across the globe, export markets have closed and transportation delays have resulted in unshippable agricultural and fishery products remaining stalled in ports.19
Likewise, panic buying and hoarding may result in grocers and individuals having less product available to donate to food banks. But some of those excess stockpiles may also never be consumed, resulting in further waste.20 US-based ReFED conducted a survey of 80 respondents in the food and charitable food industries and found that every level of the supply chain from farms to consumers is struggling due to COVID-19-related shocks. As a result, food banks are seeing a decline in consistent food donations.21
Since March 2020, 100 percent of food banks in The Global FoodBanking Network reported increases in demand for emergency food assistance due to COVID-19, with half reporting increases of 50% or more. This is an increase from a previous survey administered earlier in the pandemic, when 93 percent of respondents reported an increase in demand for emergency food assistance. On average, food banks are serving more than 107,000 additional people.22 The global pandemic has local impact, and local interventions to strengthen food systems when supply chains are disrupted and provide food access to vulnerable people is essential to preventing the COVID-19 crisis from further developing into a food insecurity crisis.
Before the global COVID-19 emergency, food banks in thousands of communities worldwide were offering a green solution to the problems of hunger and food waste at the local level. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the fragility of food systems and the need to rethink the food system to assure greater resilience. Unprecedented levels of food loss and waste are occurring at the same time that millions of people have an urgent need for food. This food loss and waste is often happening geographically near to those who need the food most. Mobilizing food banks to prevent food loss and waste offers a practical way to bolster food system resilience and mitigate environmental degradation, while providing essential social impact. Food banks are a critical component of stronger food systems at the community level, especially where food loss is high and social protections are weak.
The road to zero hunger and reductions in food loss and waste by 2030 requires not simply global commitments. It requires community-based solutions that allow the commitments to be adapted to local cultural and socioeconomic contexts to increase the likelihood for success. This study provides quantifiable evidence for the role of food banks in propelling progress toward SDG 2 and SDG Target 12.3 and building long-term resilience in food systems. The results show the impact food banks are having now and how, if scaled in their communities, they can redirect even more wholesome, surplus food away from landfills to provide better food access to vulnerable populations and strengthen food systems.
This report is made possible in part by the generous support from the following: