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Food waste: Do legal obligations for supermarkets work?

August 5, 2023

The Brussels region in Belgium wants to introduce legal obligations for large supermarkets to donate unsold food. It is not the first time an EU country introduces legislation on food donations. Does it work?

Shopper picking up fruits from a basket
Fruits that are not sold in the supermarket anymore go to the foodbankImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

Once a week, Jeannine Weyekmans and other volunteers give food to some 150 families. The chairwoman of this foodbank knows the people who come here have no other choice. This Thursday, many people found their way to the protestant church in the Brussels municipality of Laeken.

Men and women fill their shopping carts and bags with what is handed to them by the volunteers. Among them are many families with children. Next to a pile of bread, there are sauces and vegetables on the tables. On the other side of the room, people take little bags of chips and boxes with sweets. There is also sparkling water, fruits, and oil. In a big fridge, there is meat.

Unlike in a supermarket, people do not pay, but they also can't choose from the shelves everything they might crave for. People only find what has been donated by supermarkets. Some of the products have passed the best-before-use date, others have not. Among the products are some, such as oil or flour, that have an EU flag on them. They have been paid for by an EU project. 

High demand at Brussels food banks 

People come here for different reasons, Jeannine Weyekmans told DW. Some of them are entitled to via the social welfare authorities, others are in debt and then there are some people who wait to get their papers and can't work in the meantime.

She says that they do a little check that people coming here really need it. But they would never send someone away without food, she added. Every Thursday they hand out the groceries to the needy. Some of the people coming here live on what they got from Thursday to Thursday, Weyekmans says.

Jeannine Weyekmans
Jeannine Weyekmans has been running the food bank in Laeken for many yearsImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

The foodbank in Laeken is one of the roughly 140 foodbanks in the Brussels and Brabant region, which gets part of its products from the foodbank of Brussels and Brabant. The foodbank provides 5 million kilograms of foodstuffs to non-profit organizations every year, president Luc Rogge told DW. The regional food bank serves as a hub for food donations from supermarkets to food banks and hands out food paid for by an EU project for the most deprived (FEAD). This makes for around 40% of the yearly amount.

The foodbank operates with volunteers and is supported by the social authorities and the region. Without the commitment of people like Luc Rogge and Jeannine Weyekmans, more food would probably go to waste.

Plans to make food donations mandatory

Eurostat estimates that roughly 10% of all the food made available to EU consumers ends up in the trash. In 2020, that amounted to nearly 59 million tons, according to the EU. At the same time, the EU says that 32.6 million people in Europe are not able to afford a quality meal every second day.

In the Brussels area, regional minister Alain Maron says in a statement on his website that there are 70.000 people that rely on food banks. Starting in 2024 he wants to oblige stores with a surface area of more than 1.000 square meters to donate unsold – but still consumable – food. A draft decree passed in a first reading and has to undergo further legislative steps.

Staff working at a food bank
Food banks rely on the help of volunteersImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

Hans Cardyn, spokesperson of the Belgian retail trade association Comeos told DW that supermarkets in Belgium were already donating a lot. He believes the new law would disadvantage clients, which would no longer benefit from reduced prices of goods that are approaching the expiration date. Another problem according to Cardyn, is that the obligation is only valid for stores with over 1000 square meters of retail area. This plan might sound like a good idea, but is in fact a "wrong good idea,” the retailer's representative said to DW. 

Legislation in other European countries

Belgium is not the first country that wants to introduce legislation that deals with food donations from supermarkets. According to the European Food Banks Federation (FEBA), which represents 30 members bringing together a network of 351 food banks in 30 countries, they observe three different approaches. Some countries such as France and the Czech Republic oblige retailers to sign agreements for food donations to food aid organizations. Other countries, such as Italy and Moldova, choose fiscal incentives or simplify administrative procedures, Angela Frigo, Secretary General FEBA told DW. Lastly, she added that there were countries, such as the Netherlands and Hungary, which would prefer voluntary agreements rather than to implement legislation. Spain is also planning to introduce laws to stop food waste.

Asked by DW whether this kind of legislation changes the situation for food banks, the association answered "that depending on the country, the implementation of these approaches has led to increased or decreased quantity of food donations,” the statement reads. However, the main change was "a greater focus on the issue of food donation and a reinforced dialogue between all parties involved.”

Vegetable shelf in a food bank
In the food bank in Laeken, vegetables are being handed out to those in needImage: Lucia Schulten/DW

Is forcing donations the way to go?

Paul Milbourne, a social geographer at Cardiff University, tells DW that even though "every little helps”, the bigger question of why there is food waste is not addressed in any of these initiatives. He believes the supermarket retail model includes an element of surplus and that the aspect of the overproduction of food is not addressed.

Food waste does not only come from supermarkets. According to the EU Commission, over 50% of the food waste comes from households. By 2030, the EU wants to introduce legally binding targets to reduce food waste. In July, the EU Commission proposed to reduce food waste by 10% in processing and manufacturing and 30% per capita in retail and consumption. These proposals though still need to be discussed by the EU parliament and the member states. 

Belgien Lebensmittelbank in Laeken
Luc Rogge, president of the food bank of Brussels and Brabant, is not so sure the new plans will change much. Image: Lucia Schulten/DW

Other models to tackle food poverty

Social geographer Milbourne thinks it is problematic to use food waste to feed people on low income and that there are better models to provide food for them than food banks which come with stigmatization. As one of them, he mentions the so-called community food shop model, which is starting to develop in the UK. In this model people come together and purchase foods for reduced costs. They pass the reductions on to their members - a bit like in a cooperative. The benefit, according to Milbourne, is that it would entitle people with low incomes to a variety of foods of high quality. He thinks that the whole approach towards food should change and that it should be seen as a right. 

Back in Brussels, the two volunteers welcome the plan by the Brussels region to make donations mandatory. Whereas Luc Rogge thinks that in practice it might not change so much, as most of the supermarkets are already donating nearly everything, Jeannine Weyekmans is more optimistic. She thinks it is a great idea and hopes to be able to help even more people in the future.

Marta Viganò contributed to this report

Edited by: Andreas Illmer

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent