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Food banks and how data analytics is optimising the food supply chain, locally and internationally

Against the cost-of-living crisis, rising energy and food costs, demand for emergency food at UK food banks is forecast to substantially increase this winter and into 2023. A record 320,000 people have needed help from Trussell Trust food banks over the last six months; a total of 2.1 million food parcels were given out during April 2021/2022, far more than ever before.[1]


‘Food insecurity’ leaves many people reliant on emergency parcels from food banks. It exists because people do not have enough money and/ or have limited ability to acquire nutritionally adequate and safe foods. Unsteady incomes, unexpected expense or a rise in expenses, low income, benefit delays all drive people to need emergency provisions.

Source - Trussell Trust - Together for Change-Summary

A total of 9.7 million adults experienced ‘food insecurity’ in September 2022, according to the Food Foundation, with a steep rise in the proportion ‘not eating for a whole day’ (up to 6%, twice as many since the start of lockdown).

Source - Food Foundation - Initiatives - Food insecurity tracking

The Trussell Trust[2]/FareShare[3] are the main UK organisations/charities fighting hunger and food waste: The Trussell Trust supports a network of food banks, while FareShare redistributes fresh surplus food, together with long life products donated at food banks/ collection points.


Retailers, and manufacturers have been supporting food banks and food surplus redistribution for some time. In early November, Tesco launched their popup ‘reverse supermarket’ in London: The ‘Give Back Express’ helps raise awareness around the work Trussell Trust and FareShare do across the UK and shows shoppers how they can support with vital donations”[4]. Tesco, Sainsbury's and Morrisons, as an example, all now have options for customers to donate to the Trussell Trust at self-service or online checkouts, by rounding up their bills, or donating loyalty vouchers. Several retailers are doing different things in their cafes. For example, Asda are offering £1 kid’s meals, and unlimited teas and coffees for over 60’s. Morrison’s have been giving away free jacket potato and beans meals in association with Heinz to anyone using the code word Henry (#AskHenry).

Some retailers (Aldi, Asda, Booker, Co-op, Lidl, M&S, Morrisons, PRET, Sainsburys, Tesco, Waitrose, Ocado, Gousto, Bidfood) all authorise their own-label products to be sent to FareShare for onward charity redistribution. McCains and Greencore have been supporting charities and community groups within the FareShare network by donating/ redistributing food surplus for over a decade. Deliveroo[5] has launched its mobile food collection service, called Collecteroo, in partnership with The Trussell Trust which will collect unopened and in-date food from 12-17 December in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Cardiff and deliver them to food banks in the Trussell Trust’s nationwide network.


There are many more examples abound of the enormous and concerted effort made in the UK, but food banks are not, and were never intended to be, a permanent solution to food poverty. While the Trussell Trust’s vision is for a “UK without the need for food banks”, the Zero Hunger Lab at Tilburg University, Netherlands, have a goal to use data science to contribute to realising global food security, i.e., to help realise one of the United Nations (UN) 17 Sustainable Development Goals, one of which is number 2: Zero Hunger. This is done by advising aid organizations, companies, and government institutions through mathematics and smart algorithms which they call “bytes for bites”[6].


World hunger is an enormous problem: the UN estimates more than 800 million people regularly go hungry. Every 10 seconds a child dies somewhere in the world from starvation or malnutrition. [7]

Since 2011, Professor Hein Fleuren and his PhD students from Tilburg University have been helping the World Food Programme (UN) optimise their supply chain and food basket in crisis situations using mathematics and data analytics. This intensive cooperation led to “Optimus”, an innovative solution that is now helping countries like Yemen, Syria, and South Sudan feed worldwide more than 2 million people extra with the same aid budget. “Instead of approaching the supply chain step by step (package composition, purchasing, shipping, and distribution), all variables come together in the model. Thus, the purchase price is included in the composition of the food basket, and the location of purchase and the method of distribution (in a camp, via the local market?) also play a role”.


Today, Zero Hunger Lab has more than 20 researchers collaborating on more than 40 research projects with numerous partners, including World Bank, Oxfam, World Food Programme, World Vision, and INSEAD Humanitarian Research Group. Their work has taken them to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, as well as in the Netherlands, where more than 150,000 people depend on food banks. The research guides volunteer organisations to identify smart investments to help even more people successfully access food in an equitable way. Estimations are that with the proposed investments (in cooling, in transport, in surface and buildings) approximately 25% more people can be helped.


Looking ahead, Zero Hunger Lab believes our food systems must fundamentally adapt over the next decade to better help people hit by war or natural disaster. An even longer-term goal is to have the capacity to provide more than 10 billion people three healthy meals a day by 2050, within earth’s limitations.

The analytics are positive that this goal is possible, but it also requires consumers and producers to play their part: spoiling less food (at the moment nearly 1/3 of the food worldwide is wasted [8]); eating less meat and fish and in general: eating less.



Here at Shoppercentric, we will continue to monitor local and international efforts that involve innovative solutions to optimise the food supply chain.


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[1] https://www.trusselltrust.org/news-and-blog/latest-stats/end-year-stats/ [2] https://www.trusselltrust.org/ [3] https://fareshare.org.uk/ [4] https://www.thegrocer.co.uk/tesco/tesco-launches-reverse-supermarket-to-help-people-suffering-with-food-poverty/673946.article [5]https://www.chargedretail.co.uk/2022/11/10/deliveroo-collecteroo/ [6] https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/zero-hunger-lab [7] https://issuu.com/vmadmin/docs/zero_hunger_lab_special_new_scientist_eng

[8] https://www.ifco.com/countries-with-the-least-and-most-food-waste/

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