“It’s all about how you swallow frogs, isn’t it?” says Alyson Walsh, commercial director at the food waste charity FareShare.
To be clear, she doesn’t mean this literally – but is referring to a business adage on the importance of dealing with the unexpected. And 2020 was certainly full of unexpected events for FareShare.
Like so many others, the charity wrestled with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, but it was also catapulted into the national spotlight in a way that no one could have predicted.
FareShare doesn’t have exact figures for donations yet, but it does know that it had a record-breaking year. A survey in late 2019 found that just one in 10 people was aware of the charity. By November 2020, the figure was one in three.
The organisation also joined a coalition of groups that had come together to push the government into not one but two policy U-turns, making life materially better for those it is seeking to help.
And the catalyst for this remarkable escalation in FareShare’s profile and effectiveness?
One Marcus Rashford.
The charity freely describes the 23-year-old Manchester United forward’s impact as “transformational”. The softly spoken footballing superstar helped raise enough money to enable the charity to provide more than 4.2 million meals for children and families who might not otherwise eat during the coronavirus crisis, and in the process drove the issue of food poverty to the top of the news agenda.
Celebrity ambassadors are fairly common within the sector, but it is rare to find one with such a direct and impressive impact.
“The partnership with Marcus has absolutely exceeded our expectations,” Walsh says. “Historically, FareShare has had some celebrity ambassador relationships, but they’ve been more on the food and cooking side of things – chefs talking about the maximisation of food, for example.”
For much of FareShare’s 26-year history, the charity has not been especially public-facing, she explains – in part because food insecurity in the UK is often an invisible problem.
“Someone might say they are doing a sponsored swim for breast cancer care because a family member was affected by it, but you never know if someone is experiencing food insecurity, because we don’t talk about it much,” Walsh says.
The charity’s model revolves around acquiring surplus food from manufacturers and retailers and redistributing it to charities and community groups, who themselves turn it into meals for people who are experiencing food insecurity.
“In the past, we have worked mainly with the food industry, because we want to take their surplus food – so as long as they knew about us, that was great,” Walsh says.
“We have also worked to establish good relationships with the charities we support, because they were our other key audience, in order to match the two up.”
But over the past two or three years, FareShare realised it needed to evolve its approach if it wanted to grow.
“The key element to how FareShare operates is our 24 warehouses across the UK that have amazing volunteers in them – they are the ones who take the food in, sort it, parcel it up and then deliver it out in vans,” Walsh says.
The charity has the potential to appeal to a wide range of audiences: people who are concerned about the impact of food waste on climate change, those who worry about food poverty in the UK, and older demographics, perhaps those who experienced the rationing of the 1940s and 50s or its aftermath, and hate food waste on principle.
“But because we’re all based on industrial estates, there is no passer-by awareness of FareShare,” Walsh says.
“We’re not like Oxfam or the British Heart Foundation, with a shop on the high street, and so in order to be able to get enough people to volunteer for you, you have to be a bit more well known. We wanted to develop our visibility.”
No child should go to bed hungry
Signing up Marcus Rashford as an ambassador seemed like an ideal way to achieve this – in fact, his involvement with the charity predates the pandemic.
For several years, FareShare had worked with charities and community groups running summer holiday sports clubs, providing meals to children who would normally receive free school meals during term time, as part of its ActivAte scheme.
“We always saw a rise in these different types of charities that would pop up during the summer holidays – they are all quite different, and have different food needs, so we wanted to be able to talk about this as an issue,” Walsh says.
“We were very conscious that no child wants to be associated with going to ‘the club for children who can’t afford food’, and so the clubs tend to focus around sporting activity. We came up with ActivAte as a name rather than anything to do with ‘holiday hunger’.”
Rashford heard about ActivAte in 2019, and in February 2020 got in touch to find out how he could get involved.
“It was clearly something that struck a chord with him,” Walsh says. “No one thinks about what happens when the schools are closed, and that’s such a glaring issue.”
A month later coronavirus hit and the country went into lockdown, with millions of people left struggling to access food. In April, the monthly average number of charities applying to receive food from FareShare tripled, with many smaller charities forced to adapt the way they worked because it was no longer safe to serve meals in the communal way they were used to.
When FareShare launched a crisis appeal, Rashford responded by making “several significant donations” to the charity and calling on his fans and social media followers to do the same, as well as volunteering at one of the charity’s warehouses. But this would be only the beginning of his advocacy work.
As a pandemic measure, the government had introduced supermarket vouchers worth £15 a week, to cover the cost of free school meals during term time. But it repeatedly refused to extend the scheme into the holidays, leaving more than two million children at risk of going hungry.
In June, Rashford became the face of the campaign for the government to change its position, penning a heartfelt open letter to MPs calling on them to extend the voucher scheme through the holidays.
“This is not about politics; this is about humanity – looking at ourselves in the mirror and feeling like we did everything we could to protect those who can’t, for whatever reason or circumstance, protect themselves,” he wrote. “Political affiliations aside, can we not all agree that no child should be going to bed hungry?”
In an interview with the BBC about his involvement with the campaign to end child food poverty, Rashford, when asked whether he himself had gone hungry sometimes as a child, responded with devastating simplicity: “Oh yeah, of course.
“But I also understood, maybe it was just part of me growing up. I just knew how hard my mum was working.”
His open letter described his experiences as being “all-too-familiar for families in England”, adding: “The system was not built for families like mine to succeed, regardless of how hard my mum worked.”
He said he would “be doing myself, my family and my community an injustice if I didn’t stand here today with my voice and my platform,” and ask MPs for help.
Walsh believes this is a large part of the reason that Rashford’s involvement with FareShare has been so powerful.
“He has the credibility and honesty of someone who comes to this with lived experience,” she says.
“It isn’t somebody saying: ‘You should support this charity because they’re great,’ it’s: ‘You should support this charity because there’s a real issue here: it affected me, it affects two million children.’
“His voice really spoke out in a time of darkness because he’s not coming at it from a celebrity point of view, but as someone who wants to use his platform in a positive way and shine a spotlight.”
And when Rashford paid a visit to one of the community projects that FareShare works with as part of ActivAte, Walsh says his focus on the children he met was evident.
“I was really conscious that a few years ago, that was him – and for him, the important thing was giving those children a voice and making sure they didn’t go through what he went through,” she says.
“It was fantastic to see him in person and how thoughtful and caring he was towards the children, as well as wanting to use his voice and give a great interview, talk to the mums and be really articulate about the cause that he was passionate about.”
The open letter triggered outpourings of public praise and declarations of support for Rashford and his campaign. Within a day of its publication the government reversed its decision, and agreed to provide the food vouchers throughout the school summer holidays.
Rashford was awarded an MBE for his work on the issue in the Queen’s Birthday Honours – but anyone who thought that would bring his campaigning to an end was swiftly proved wrong. Food vouchers might have been secured for the summer, but what about October half term, the Christmas holidays and Easter?
A taskforce on child food poverty, spearheaded by Rashford, and involving FareShare and 12 other charities and food retailers was formed, calling for the expansion of free school meals to every child from a household in receipt of Universal Credit or equivalent, and the expansion of holiday provision to support all children who qualify for free school meals, among other demands.
Initially, the government was unmoved by the campaigners’ plea to expand the holiday food programme, and a Labour motion on the issue in October was defeated in Parliament by 322 votes to 261.
It must have felt like a significant setback – but the public rallied to the cause. Local councils and individual businesses around England defied the government decision, resulting in a tidal wave of pledges to serve free meals to children who needed them over the October half-term holiday. And in the 24 hours after the vote, individual giving to FareShare broke all its donation records, with the charity attracting gifts from more than 5,700 additional donors, including a single donation of £3,000.
In November the government performed another U-turn on the issue, announcing a £170m Covid-19 winter grant scheme to support vulnerable families in England, and an extension of the holiday activities and food programme to the Easter, summer and Christmas breaks in 2021.
In the meantime, FareShare has been inundated with offers of support and donations amid an explosion of awareness about the charity. For an organisation not used to being in the limelight, this has come as something of a shock.
“Because of Marcus Rashford’s international platform, we have had people contacting us from 30 different countries, offering different kinds of support,” Walsh says.
“It’s been challenging, but in a good way. We have an amazing team with incredible skills, but it’s a small one, so the volume of work that has come in and the ability to stay on top of it has been a real pressure.”
All the while FareShare has been dealing with the challenges posed by lockdown, with many of its usual volunteers shielding just as more food was needed. It estimates that year on year, it has doubled the number of meals it provides weekly.
Walsh says that everybody in the organisation has stepped up, from the volunteers working in the warehouses to the communications team, which has been fielding people’s questions and offers of support.
“I’d estimate we had a tenfold increase in the volume of information and communications coming in to us, and at the peak of the crisis we were tripling the amount of food we got out. Everything we were doing was ramped up hugely,” she says.
Perhaps the ultimate symbol of FareShare’s move from back-room negotiator to the centre of the public stage was the announcement that the charity, along with the parental support charity HomeShare, would benefit from a £5m fundraising appeal by the John Lewis Partnership, and get a mention in the retailer’s much-anticipated Christmas ad campaign.
Was this something Walsh could have predicted back at the start of 2020? “Never in a million years,” she says.
“We had a really good relationship with them and there were regular conversations between us, but to be at the heart of such an iconic moment and a campaign, their Christmas campaign, in such an unusual year, is not at all what we would expect.”
Perhaps the department store chain realised that pushing people to buy products might not go down well at a time when people had been put out of work and were unable to see their loved ones. The adverts focused instead on connection and the idea of acts of kindness as gifts. Walsh says this spirit of collaboration and co-operation aligns well with the approach the charity has always taken.
“FareShare’s position has always been that by collaborating, the end result is greater,” she says.
“We will always work collaboratively with a food partner to understand where food surplus occurs, rather than challenging them and saying: ‘Why aren’t you donating surplus food to charity?’”
This collaborative approach was a big help as FareShare became increasingly involved in the massive scale of public and political campaigning by the food poverty taskforce over the summer. Walsh is quick to point out that the charity was not operating alone – it worked alongside Rashford, the Food Foundation and the other charities.
As the issue caught the public imagination and the debate intensified, the arguments broke down along sharply party political lines – particularly on social media, where some were vociferously arguing that food security for children was not the state’s responsibility and making judgmental comments about parents who were struggling, while Conservative MPs seen as opposing the campaign received abuse.
However, FareShare managed to remain above much of the outright nastiness and, like Rashford himself, focused on putting forward a positive vision for how the situation could be changed for the better.
“From our point of view, we were lending our voice to a really important and timely campaign where action was needed,” says Walsh.
“At the same time we were supporting 11,000 charities that desperately needed more food. We came to the campaign with the knowledge of what was being experienced in vulnerable communities and in our regional centres, and that made the lobbying actively credible.”
Ultimately, she says, FareShare and the organisations it campaigns alongside are focused on the end result.
“The impact within politics was not something that any of the members of the taskforce were seeking,” she says. “It was more about dealing with this year specifically, and then getting the right sort of approaches embedded in place to continue into next year.”
While the government’s November U-turn was welcome, it did not meet all of the taskforce recommendations: and so, the taskforce’s work will continue. The aim, Walsh says, is “to turn what has been a knee-jerk reaction into a social norm”, providing food for struggling families on a continuous basis, and redistributing food that would otherwise go to waste.
Ensuring families can feed their children will have a knock-on social effect, she says.
“There has been a lot of anxiety and angst when you are a parent or grandparent who can’t put food on the table. Giving them peace of mind has to be one of the best things that you can do, because then they can focus on getting the other elements of help that will support them in other situations.
“At FareShare we have seen from all the other different types of charities we work with – whether that’s elderly isolation lunch clubs, mental health cafés and domestic violence refuges – food is the hook to get people in, and then other support services can help people and communities get back on their feet.”
FareShare’s mission to attract more volunteers has been a major success. The charity estimates it has about 2,000 regular volunteers; in the year to 31 March 2019, it recorded just 305. This is partly due to a partnership with the British Red Cross in April, when it attracted more volunteers in a week than it normally would in a year, but also thanks to Rashford.
The charity’s relationship with the footballer – who received a special award at BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2020 – will continue, but there are no firm plans for what that will look like, as Manchester United’s Premier League campaign and his project to support children’s literacy have taken up much of his time.
Nonetheless, Walsh says: “I don’t have any doubt or hesitation that he is committed to moving forward on this. He is looking at the lives of children in homes where there is food insecurity in a really holistic way – as the book club shows – so we will keep threading the different activities together.”
Walsh remains incredulous about FareShare’s past year – but proud that it has proven itself agile and flexible enough to cope with both the extra demand, and the extra support.
“We have tried to embed that with everyone across the organisation,” she says. “You always have to be conscious that if you are lobbying for something, you have to have the ability to manage when it actually happens.
“So you have to be prepared for success - and swallow as many frogs as you can.”