“Poor people have a right to eat well”: towards quality, locally grown food aid in France

Volunteers from the Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy Food Bank in eastern France take delivery of organic eggs that a local breeder brings them every Tuesday. These fresh products are destined for poor families, more and more of whom have sought food aid since the start of the pandemic. (Benoît Collet)

On the shelves of the Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy branch of the national food bank network, Banque Alimentaire (Food Bank), located in a wholesale market in the eastern French town, local organic eggs now sit alongside the usual unsold products from the supermarkets. Over the past six months, logistics volunteers have received a tonne of fresh eggs, directly from the Picorette and Company farm, about ten kilometres south of the city of Nancy. In the French département of Meurthe-et-Moselle, as elsewhere, the health crisis has pushed more and more French people into poverty: the need for food aid there leapt up by 45 per cent during the first lockdown, and associations saw their stocks rapidly vanish. In France, Banque Alimentaire registered nearly 100,000 new beneficiaries during 2020.

Faced with this emergency, local elected officials decided to make an exceptional one-off payment of €300,000 to the charitable associations of this department of 731,000 inhabitants. This was awarded on the condition that their purchases be made from local producers, a commitment made during the signing, last December, of a supply charter between four food aid actors (Banque Alimentaire, Secours populaire/Peoples’ Aid, the Restos du cœur/Restaurants of the Heart, and the Soupe des sans-abris/Soup Kitchen for the Homeless) and the Chamber of Agriculture.

“The poor also have the right to eat well. Fresh products, and not just canned food or prepared meals,” says Philippe Julien, the director of Food Bank 54, which manages the 2,000m² warehouse in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, where tonnes of foodstuffs arrive daily and are then transported by the association’s trucks to the department’s 20 distribution centres.

“This charter enables us to get eggs easily, whereas it is usually difficult to collect them from supermarkets. Providing protein for our beneficiaries is a real challenge,” continues Julien, walking past the cold storage room where the frozen foods and meat are stored after the Food Bank collects the unsold products from the region’s supermarkets each week.

The rapid growth in food poverty since the start of the pandemic has focused the minds of local elected officials on “the best way to support both farmers who are in difficulty due to the closure of collective catering facilities and poor families, whose situation has become still worse as a result of the closure of school canteens,” says Audrey Bardot Normand, the department’s socialist vice-president in charge of agriculture and the environment. From December 2020 to March 2021, the four charities who signed the charter bought 4,800 kilogrammes of meat, 4,000 kilos of dairy products and nearly 400,000 eggs from local producers, with public subsidies. Unfortunately, the programme will not be renewed next year, due to a lack of funds. “Growing poverty and the payment of more social benefits are putting a serious strain on our budget,” says the elected official.

Towards a “social security for food”?

The programme’s philosophy could be continued via a new formula however, with the help of grants, this time no longer local, but national. The government has announced that it also wants to go down the path of relocated food aid. At the beginning of May, via funding from the ‘post-pandemic’ recovery plan, the Ministry of Agriculture began to pay €6 million in subsidies to projects by charitable associations such as the opening of mobile distribution points for fresh, local products in working-class neighbourhoods, the creation of vegetable gardens reserved for the most vulnerable, and training workshops around the promotion of seasonal fruits and vegetables.

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But there is the possibility of going even further, as proposed by the agronomists of the Agriculture and Food Sovereignty group of the NGO Engineers Without Borders (ISF-AgriSTA) who envisage a “social security for food”, which would guarantee “universality of access and a contractual arrangement with professionals achieved using democratically managed funds”. These funds, modelled on retirement or health insurance funds, would cover the food purchases of all citizens regardless of their professional situation to up to €150 per month, thanks to a ‘food card’ [editor’s note: a reference to the smart card owned by each French resident affiliated with the social security system]. The only condition would be that the money be spent with local producers and distributors contracted and remunerated by these funds. These would be independent public bodies run by unions and civil society. Exactly as the current French social security system can be, which manages the reimbursements of the medical expenses of all citizens, regardless of income.

In short, it is a move from the current model of private charity to a “universal right to food”, guaranteed by a social protection system, “which is what we should have in a democracy,” writes ISF-AgriSTA in an article it published on the Reporterre website together with the Confédération paysanne and the Réseau-Salariat association.

The idea of food social security, which also aims to ensure fair remuneration for part of the agricultural world by protecting them from market fluctuations, via public contract, has also become a campaign theme for the candidates of the ecological party EELV in the French regional elections of June 2021. “What is being done in Meurthe-et-Moselle shows that a certain number of local elected representatives on the left want to balance social justice, fair remuneration for the agricultural world and ecological transition,” says Eliane Romani, regional EELV candidate, hopefully.

Protection from the fluctuations of the agricultural market

Thomas Simonin, a well-built man in his thirties, delivers to the Food Bank every Tuesday. The farmer raises 4,000 laying hens in the open air, in the hollow of one of the hills that run through the area south of Nancy. Charities are good customers for him, offering him the assurance of fixed and regular orders. “Lockdown has boosted local sales. But I did not play with my prices,” says the breeder, activating the lever that opens the doors of the industrial henhouse, where the birds spend the night. At the edge of the farm, a woman gets out of her car to buy eggs from a vending machine. Direct sales to associations or individuals allow Simonin, like other farmers who have signed the charter, to earn more from their work by cutting out intermediaries and ensuring stable demand, supported by the public authorities.

“Local farmers are very dependent on fluctuations in world prices for milk and beef, and cannot afford to say no to a new secure outlet such as those opened up by public charters for the local supply of charitable associations and school canteens,” says Nicole Lebrun, in charge of “out-of-home catering” at the of Meurthe-et-Moselle Chamber of Agriculture, who selected the three farmers and the four local cooperatives involved in the supply of fresh produce to private food aid.

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Before the charter was signed, negotiations between the Chamber of Agriculture and food aid associations usually stumbled over the price paid to producers, with private food aid seeking the lowest possible prices for its beneficiaries, while farmers pushed for higher prices, to allow them to obtain a decent income.

“We get donations of potatoes from farmers in northern France who no longer know what to do with them, especially when the restaurants were closed. Why do you want me to buy potatoes at 40 cents a kilo from a local producer?” points out Robert Larose, president of Restos du Cœur 54.

In this context, public subsidies have enabled local producers to fight on equal terms against competition from the agri-food industry and its surpluses. On the association side, the intervention of the public authorities compensates for the additional cost of buying fresh and local products rather than recovering only unsold products from mass distribution, which ultimately makes it possible to distribute vegetables and meat from local producers to poor households, rather than ready meals and junk food.

With its ‘social security for food’, Engineers Without Borders hopes to perpetuate access to quality food for the poorest, and to move away from the charity mindset, of this “little-known cog of the economy, through which the agri-food sector recycles its surpluses and unsold products, otherwise considered as rubbish,” as the journalist Fréderic Denhez and the writer Alexis Jenni state harshly, in their book Ensemble pour mieux se nourrir (Working Together to Eat Better), published last April. The limits of this system became regrettably apparent in 2019, when the French agricultural development office FranceAgriMer used grants from the Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) to purchase 1,400 tonnes of very poor quality Polish minced steaks, containing traces of chicken, samples of offal, or even vegetable proteins, which was then delivered, notably, to the Restos du Cœur.

There is still much work be done to improve the nutritional and environmental quality of the diets of the very poor, and to make food a “common good”, as the green candidates for the regional elections are calling for. “There is still a whole shift in mentality to be made in the food aid world, regarding the supply channels. It’s like for us consumers: going to the supermarket rather than to local producers is the easy way out,” summarises Bardot-Normand.

The next step for environmentalists, if they win the vote in the French regional elections, on 27 June: enshrine food as a universal right, and lay the foundations for a new branch of social security, so that food aid is no longer dependent on electoral outcomes or local budgetary constraints.

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