Giant leap for hunger in SA through food donations regulations

‘Within the next year we are hoping to have national food donation regulations in place that would enable us to recover far more good, edible surplus food that is currently going to waste every year, and which can feed the millions of hungry people in our country,’ says Andy Du Plessis, the managing director of FoodForward SA (FFSA), the largest food redistribution non-profit organisation in South Africa, established in 2009.

After years of appealing to national government to put food donation regulations in place, this is finally happening in collaboration with the relevant departments, including the Department of Health, which is the guardian of the Food Act.

Du Plessis explains that 10 million tons of food goes to waste every year in South Africa and ends up in landfills due to various supply chain dynamics (July CSIR 2021 technical report on food loss and waste). That’s a third of the 31 million tons produced annually in South Africa. A huge percentage of this is good, edible and healthy food.

‘FFSA is recovering less than 1% of the 10 million tons of surplus food that goes to waste every year,’ he says. ‘We distribute it through 2 750 registered non-profit and beneficiary organisations that collectively reach 985 000 vulnerable people throughout South Africa every day. We have received catalytic support from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, funded by Nedbank, which has contributed to FFSA’s supplier and farmer network expansion since 2020.’

‘FFSA has a string of regular suppliers, including food manufacturing corporations, food retail chains and farmers, with more coming on board every month,’ says Poovandran Pillay, Executive Head for Corporate Social Investment (CSI) at Nedbank. ‘However, many others have said that their organisations do not allow them to donate perishable or non-perishable foods without a policy in place because of liability concerns or uncertainty. Putting a policy in place would be a giant leap for addressing hunger in South Africa.’

With clear regulations in place, Du Plessis says that over the next 5 years, FFSA could scale up to deliver edible surplus food to more than 2,5 million vulnerable people and increase their beneficiary organisation network to between 3 500 and 5000 nationally, as they have branches in all 9 provinces.

‘We met with the Departments of Health, Trade and Industry, and the Consumer Goods Council of South Africa and proposed our recommendations for regulatory changes to reduce food loss and waste and increase food security. These were then presented to the National Economic Development and Labour Council’s (Nedlac) Cost of Living Rapid Response Team.’

Subsequent meetings included the Harvard Law Schools Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Legal Resources Centre about international best practice on food donations. In August this year the Department of Health visited FFSA’s head office in Cape Town and was impressed by their scale of operations. They have called for submissions for labelling guidelines, and invited FFSA to submit comments on food donations and make it clear that food past its “Best Before” date can be donated. The closing date was 21 September 2023.

‘The Department of Health is now looking at these submissions and updating the guidelines. They have indicated that they will publish the guidelines in the coming months,’ Du Plessis explains.

‘The second piece of good news is that we have engaged the South African Bureau of Standards to put together a South African National Standard (SANS) for food safety guidelines for food donations. They estimated that this may take between 8 and 12 months to complete. This will significantly change the food donations environment.’

Over 95% of the food donated to FFSA is nutritious, including fruit, vegetables, yoghurt, milk, cheese, cereals and canned goods like baked beans, as well as protein sources such as pilchards. Many of these foods are unaffordable for millions of South Africans who mainly eat cheaper starches like maize meal.

Through their “Second Harvest” programme and with support from the WWF Nedbank Green Trust, FFSA has, over the past 3 years, expanded its donating farmer network. ‘In 2019 we had 15 farmers, that grew to 34 in 2020 and we then formed a partnership with OneFarm Share that has a network of more than 600 farmers donating agricultural produce into our network.’

According to WWF, in South Africa, 49% of all agricultural production is lost or wasted due a number of factors, including post-harvest surplus harvests, specification requirements, cold chain and processing inadequacies or farmers not having access to markets. FFSA collects from the farmers while they harvest.

A 2023 WWF publication titled Food Loss and Waste in Farming surveyed 15 farmers who donate to FFSA, including 4 fruit farms, 5 vegetable farms and 6 mixed farms (fruit and vegetables). Ten farms are in the Western Cape, 3 in the Eastern Cape and 1 each in KwaZulu-Natal and Limpopo. The average yield from these farms is 4 566 tonnes a year.

Weather was named as one of the biggest causes of food loss, including sun damage to fruits, and wind or hail damage. Defects caused by weather lead mostly to cosmetic damage to the fruit and vegetables, where the skin or peel might have blemishes or discolouration and often cannot be sold despite the flesh being edible and of a high quality but often cannot be sold. The farmers said that because of the high transport costs this food often goes to waste or ends up as animal feed rather than being donated because it’s just too expensive to arrange the transport. With FFSA collecting from their farms, they are more than willing to donate.

The only remaining stumbling block now is the section in the Consumer  Act around strict liability. Under the current regulations, if a company donates food to FFSA who onward donate that food to a beneficiary organisation, the originator of the food may still be held liable. This is obviously an limiting factor for donations.

‘We are proposing that if the food is deemed safe at the time of donating it to us − we have a strict checking list and operating procedure to determine this − then liability must end at the point at which the food is donated,’ says Du Plessis. ‘In the same vein, once we have donated food to our beneficiary organisations and it is deemed safe, we should no longer be liable. We are in discussions with the Department of Trade and Industry on this.’

Du Plessis says FFSA has all the infrastructure and logistics in place to significantly scale up once the food donations regulations have been put in place. ‘We have a fleet of refrigerated trucks that enables us to collect surplus food and deliver it to vulnerable communities across the country. We are ready to go!’ ends