Food banks are part of the solution

The paradox of hunger amid food waste

Among the greatest challenges the world faces today are how to ensure that a growing global population—projected to rise to around 10 billion by 2050—has access to enough healthy food and how food loss and waste (FLW) can be reduced for a more sustainable planet.

Two billion people suffer from moderate or severe food insecurity, meaning they are hungry or at risk of hunger and are therefore forced to compromise the quality and quantity of their diets or miss meals entirely.1 After decades of steady decline, the prevalence of undernourishment has remained steady at around 11 percent of the world’s population since 2015. Yet the absolute number of hungry people is rising, particularly in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Western Asia.Globally, an estimated 820 million people—one in nine—go hungry.Without intervention, the lives of those who are hungry and malnourished are stripped of their potential. Their health, employability, and labor productivity all suffer.

Additionally, for far too many families the ability to raise healthy, functioning children suffers due to limited food access. Nutrition in the early years of life is key to proper growth and development. An estimated 21.9 percent of the world’s children under age five suffer from stunting, or reduced growth rate, and 7.3 percent of the world’s children under age five suffer from wasting, or underweight.Shorter-term health effects of hunger include impaired cognition, decreased concentration, and poor academic performance.Longer-term health effects of hunger include vitamin deficiencies, weakness, growth delays, susceptibility to disease, and death.6

Paradoxically, while millions suffer from hunger, more than enough food is currently produced in the world to feed everyone. Despite enormous gains in agricultural productivity and improvements throughout food systems in the past decades, one-third of all food produced globally is lost or wasted, about 1.3 billion tons.7 FLW isn’t simply calories denied to impoverished people who could be fed, but a massive misuse of natural resources, including land, water, and energy. The cost estimates of FLW are also huge: US$680 billion in industrialized countries and US$310 billion in developing countries.8 

Hunger is a complex problem, requiring numerous interventions—including efficient agriculture and commercial food systems, adequate water, sanitation and hygiene, and equitable economic growth. Multiple stakeholders are also involved—federal and local governments, international NGOs and UN agencies, the corporate sector, and local communities. The food bank model is a solution that touches all of these: a unique, revolutionary hunger-relief intervention that serves as a nexus between sectors to address food insecurity while also reducing FLW at the community level.

How food banks are making a difference

The Global FoodBanking Network was established to advance one of the most promising, community-based solutions to hunger: food banking. Established five decades ago, food banks are an important, community-based hunger intervention and food surplus recovery model that today serve approximately 62.5 millionimpoverished and food-insecure people around the globe.10 Food banking helps ensure food security in emerging countries with nascent food systems and aids in the development of long-standing institutions that help reduce hunger and food insecurity for vulnerable populations. Food banks can help make up for a lack of social service programs, fill in gaps where income support does not exist, and respond quickly and effectively to economic downturns.

Food banks capture wholesome, surplus food and deliver it to the people who need it most, engaging all sectors of society (governments, business, and civil) in the process. Food banks acquire donated food, much of which would otherwise be wasted, from farms, manufacturers, distributors, retail stores, consumers, and other sources and make it available to those in need through an established network of community agencies. These agencies include schools, food pantries, soup kitchens, AIDS and tuberculosis hospices, substance abuse clinics, after-school programs, and other nonprofit programs that provide food to the hungry.

The reach and effectiveness of the food bank model has been researched extensively in high-income countries (United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia), showing the intersection of public- and private-sector interventions marshalled by food banks to address hunger in their communities. Food banks in high-income countries are important complements to governments and other civil society actors working to address food insecurity among vulnerable populations.

Over the past 10 years, there has been a substantial increase in the establishment and development of the food bank model in emerging market economies. The advancement of the food bank model in these transitioning- and middle-income countries (as defined by the OECD) has been substantial. GFN, working with the private sector, governments, and NGOs in developing and emerging market economies, has helped establish and grow food banks in more than 30 countries to date. More are on the horizon.

Food banking also has a positive environmental impact. In their work to recover and redirect nutritious, edible surplus food that might otherwise end up in a landfill, food banks ameliorate greenhouse gas emissions and therefore promote a more sustainable planet. GFN’s report Waste Not Want Not: Food Banks as a Green Solution to Hunger estimated that food banks globally, including GFN and the networks of partner organizations Feeding America and the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA), mitigate an estimated 10.54 billion kilograms of CO2 equivalents annually.11 That is equivalent to the electricity used in 1.8 million homes or the exhaust from 2.2 million passenger vehicles.12 If all of the edible, nutritious food that food banks divert and distribute annually to needy people were sent to a landfill, it would require almost 300,000 large dump trucks to contain it.13 

Without intervention, the lives of those who are hungry and malnourished are stripped of their potential. Their health, employability, and labor productivity all suffer. 

1FAO, IFAD, UNICEF, WFP, and WHO, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019: Safeguarding Against Economic Slowdowns and Downturns (Rome: FAO, 2019).
2FAO et al., The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019.
3FAO et al., The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019.
4FAO et al., The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2019.
5R. E. Black, L. H. Allen, Z. A. Bhutta, L. E. Caulfield, M. de Onis, M. Ezzati, C. Mathers, and the Maternal and Child Undernutrition Study Group, “Maternal and Child Undernutrition: Global and Regional Exposures and Health Consequences,” The Lancet 371, no. 9608 (2008): 243–60.
6Black et al., “Maternal and Child Undernutrition.” 
7FAO, Global Food Losses and Waste: Extent, Causes and Preventions (Rome: FAO, 2011).
8FAO, Global Food Losses and Waste.
9Inclusive of food banks in the GFN, Feeding America, and FEBA networks.
10GFN, Waste Not, Want Not: Food Banks as a Green Solution to Hunger (Chicago: The Global FoodBanking Network, 2019),
11GFN, Waste Not, Want Not.
12GFN, Waste Not, Want Not.
13GFN, Waste Not, Want Not.

The State of Global Food Banking 2019

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