Integrating policies to tackle food waste and
supporting the social economy:

Benefits for the EU and its Member States

By Isabela Vera

Feedback published its policy recommendations based on the results of FLAVOUR, an innovative project funded by the EU’s Interreg 2 Seas Mers Zeeën 2014-2020 programme that aims to tackle food waste while supporting inclusive jobs in the social economy. Report author Isabela Vera explores the key findings.

Food waste is a key climate issue, and reducing food waste can provide benefits for both the environment and society. Wasted food is responsible for around 6-8% of global human-generated greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. In the EU, around 88 million tonnes of food waste are generated annually, at a cost of 143 billion euros and accounting for approximately 20% of total food produced. 

For the EU to meet its target of halving food waste by 2030, cutting greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 55% by 2030 and reaching climate neutrality by 2050, food waste reduction must be prioritised — firstly by preventing food surplus, then by supporting the food surplus sector to effectively redistribute food waste that cannot be prevented. 

In this second area of action, policymakers have significant opportunities to leverage the effective distribution of food surplus as a pathway to achieving other critical social objectives. This includes supporting the social economy and providing employment to people who are far from the labour market, a term used to describe people who face barriers to accessing meaningful work as a result of social or economic marginalisation.

Labour market inclusion is a key goal of the EU’s Green Deal and EU COVID Recovery Plan, and as the Commission’s recent Joint Employment Report 2022 indicates, rising labour and skill shortages in some sectors will require an additional focus on participation on adult learning.

A thriving social economy is critical to achieving these objectives: with 2.8 million social organisations and entities in Europe, social economy organisations provide nearly 14 million jobs. Social organisations that aim to integrate vulnerable workers play a particularly important role in building inclusive economies. 

A 2020 study by the European Network of Social Integration Enterprises (ENSIE) of nearly 400 such organisations in 10 European countries found that among 10,136 disadvantaged workers, 80% remained in employment after their first placement. 40% of these workers were women, which is important because of the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on women’s labour market participation.

Around a third of the organisations that ENSIE surveyed were active in the food, restaurant, or canteen sector, demonstrating their potential to solve social and environmental challenges related to our food system.

FLAVOUR, an innovative food waste project funded by the EU’s Interreg 2 Seas Mers Zeeën 2014-2020 programme, has supported European social organisations like Panier de la Mer in France and the cities of Brugge, Mechelen, and Antwerp in the Flanders region of Belgium to employ individuals from marginalised communities to redistribute food surplus to people living in food poverty or re-valorise food surplus into new, delicious products.

The project’s findings have been clear: while we can’t rely on food surplus organisations to solve the problems of food waste and food insecurity, they can provide valuable employment to people who face barriers to accessing the labour market.

However, many organisations in the sector struggle to access the capital they need for adequate staffing, infrastructure, and processing facilities. They also struggle to navigate complex EU regulations that place limits on the length of government-subsidised work contracts and the training given to marginalised workers. This results in these workers being forced to leave their positions before they’re ready to re-integrate into the labour market in the long term.

"The EU should seriously consider investigating the harm it is doing to the social economy by putting free-market principles first.”

~ Gorik Ooms

“It would be fair to say that, overall, and especially in countries where the social economy is still in its infancy, the EU is supportive [of the social economy],” says Gorik Ooms, a policy advisor at Herw!in, FLAVOUR’s managing organisation. “However, the EU’s preoccupation with free-market principles, and the tight restrictions it puts on state aid as a result, is becoming a serious obstacle. The social economy relies on public responsibility and therefore on states, representing the people, supporting individuals and communities. That means state aid. State aid often is a good and necessary thing, and the EU should seriously consider investigating the harm it is doing to the social economy by putting free-market principles first.”

Better policymaking in support of a circular economy, waste management, and employment in the EU and its member states can create opportunities for social organisations like the FLAVOUR pilots make use of surplus food while creating employment for people who are far from the labour market. Along with targeted efforts to prevent food surplus from occurring, policymakers need to further support the social economy, including organisations fighting food waste, by:

  • Revising the European Commission’s General Block Exemption Regulation, which currently strictly limits state support for social organisations hiring marginalised workers. This revision could start by re-framing the currently binary distinction between economic and charitable activities in the EU and allowing for longer contracts and more training to be subsidised by state aid in the social economy.
  • Subsidising the activities of social organisations working with food surplus using funds from companies who create food waste in the first place, following the principles of “polluter pays”.
  • Streamlining national or regional laws that impact social organisations’ capacity to hire people far from the labour market.
  • Mainstreaming gender equity and social inclusion into the process of matching food surplus organisations with workers from work-integration prorgrams, particularly given the adverse impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women workers and workers with marginalised identities 

"To tackle food waste from the source, the EU will need to introduce a binding 50% food waste reduction target from farm-to-fork for all Member States."

~ Simon Martens

“Employing vulnerable people to redistribute food surplus is not the solution to food waste or food insecurity,” says Simon Martens, a project manager at HERW!N. “To tackle food waste from the source, the EU will need to introduce a binding 50% food waste reduction target from farm-to-fork for all Member States. However, some food surplus will continue to occur in a sustainable food system. Social employment can be a valuable additional solution to save that food surplus. For policymakers, supporting inclusive jobs in the food surplus sector is an excellent opportunity.”