Food aid: a system that is currently unavoidable, but not inevitable

To act against food insecurity by promoting access to quality food for everyone

September 2020

Le Labo de l’économie sociale et solidaire (Labo ESS)

The demand for food aid is exploding at the same time as the unemployment rate increases and school canteens no longer serve children from low-income families. Fortunately, a wave of national solidarity has spread throughout France. Self-help groups have been set up in the regions among the inhabitants, with associations, local authorities, shopkeepers and local producers. At the same time, the demand for quality food has never been so high, with an exponential growth in the purchase of organic products and/or local products. How can these two France converge? Why should quality be reserved for those who can afford it, to the detriment of those who can’t? How can we proceed to reconcile what seems impossible: access to quality food with low incomes? What reforms, what actions should be undertaken to enable the exercise of a real right to a standard of living sufficient to ensure food in dignity? What type of systemic organisations should be encouraged in the territories in order to provide concerted, complementary, cooperative and effective responses between all the actors concerned? And how can we take part in this major issue that concerns us all: changing our eating habits to improve our impact on the environment and our health? This study aims to help explore certain avenues to shed light on these questions by drawing on meetings in the field, interviews and the reading of a wealth of literature, which we have not yet finished reading.

The default policy to combat food insecurity

From charitable mobilisation to an institutionalised system

Today, the main response to food insecurity, food aid in its contemporary form has its roots in the 1980s 1. France no longer suffers from food shortages, but the economic and social crises of the 1970s and 1980s undermined the protection model inherited from the « Trente Glorieuses ». In this context, the charitable sector is mobilising to make up for the shortcomings of a welfare state in crisis. Alongside existing charitable actors (Secours populaire, Secours catholique, Salvation Army, Société Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, etc.), new initiatives focusing on the food sector emerged in the mid-1980s: the first Food Bank was created in Arcueil in 1984 and the Restos du Coeur in 1985. These actions were then a means of responding to emergencies. However, faced with the increase in the number of people requesting food aid, this aid, initially conceived as temporary, gradually became a structural and institutionalised response to food insecurity 2.

In France, under the impetus of the Restos du Coeur, a process of centralising purchases has been set up. On 20 October 1988, the so-called « Coluche law » allowed donors of associations fighting poverty to benefit from a tax reduction. The contemporary model of French food aid was born. There is no definition of food aid in France until 2010. It is finally with the law n°2010-874 on the modernisation of agriculture and fisheries (LMAP) that it is formally recognised in these terms:

« The purpose of food aid is to provide food to the most deprived people. This aid is provided both by the European Union and by the State or any other legal person ». The Garot law (Law no. 2016-138 of 11 February 2016) recognises the link between food aid and the fight against food waste by obliging supermarkets of more than 400 m² to create a partnership with a food aid association in order to sell unsold food to it.

At the same time, food aid becomes part of a European institutional system through the creation in 1987 of the European Programme of Aid to the Poorest (PEAD), which aims to direct the chronic surpluses of European agriculture towards food aid associations. It is replaced in 2014 by the European Fund for Aid to the Most Deprived (EAFD), which separates food aid from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and becomes a social aid that financially supports States and European charities in their actions to combat precariousness.

Through this gradual institutionalisation, food aid is gradually moving beyond the framework of a charitable social emergency action to become, by default, the policy for combating increasing food insecurity, thus validating the existence of a two-tier society.

Food aid in France, current situation and orders of magnitude

A few orders of magnitude are necessary to fully understand the role of food aid in the fight against food insecurity in France.

For those described as « beneficiaries », the following should be taken into account

The Senate report estimates their number at 5.5 million, of whom 52.4% are women and 35% children. It also confirms the link between food insecurity and economic insecurity 3.

On the side of food aid actors (-rice-s)

A total of 335,000 tonnes of food were distributed by these actors in 2018. Food aid is mainly provided by charities and 200,000 committed volunteers 4. Among the 17 national private structures that are entitled to receive public contributions for food aid, four main associations are among the most important:

In addition to the associations, the municipalities are an important link in the food aid chain through the communal and inter-communal social action centres (CCAS and CIAS). These are not obliged to declare their activity as food aid but their number of beneficiaries is estimated at 400,000 5.

Finally, social and/or solidarity grocery shops play an important role in food aid. There are almost 900 in France, 370 of which are federated within the Association Nationale de Développement des Épiceries Solidaires (ANDES) 6 and 80 within the Union des Groupements des Épiceries Sociales et Solidaires (UGESS). They may be carried by associations or CCAS/CIAS (this is the case for almost a third of them).

Lack of governance at national level, too few initiatives for territorial coordination

Because it is at the crossroads of several fields (food, health, social and economic), food aid poses a strong governance challenge. This mission is on the periphery of the perimeter of action of many public actors 7 :

This interweaving of scales and competences contributes to a lack of clarity and coordination, with actions often remaining compartmentalised instead of complementing each other. The effort to organise food aid is therefore mainly the responsibility of the authorised associations.

However, at both national and local level, the lack of coordination between these independently organised associations contributes to further blurring the food aid system.

This lack of a clear framework and steering leaves local actors free to organise their coordination as they see fit. This is reflected first of all in the great disparity in terms of territorial coverage and the quality of the food distributed 8. In addition, the lack of coordination means that there are many differences at local level in the procedures for registering for food aid, to the detriment of those who depend on it. This means that people have to justify their precarious situation to several organisations on a recurring basis, which can be seen as degrading. The calculation of the « reste à vivre » (i.e. the sum remaining for the month after the payment of fixed costs), which is an almost systematic prerequisite for access to food aid, also varies from one organisation to another, which makes the procedures for people using food aid more complex.

However, in a number of cases, this freedom of action provides a space for innovation where interesting territorial coordination initiatives can be developed. In the context of its Alim’Activ project, ANSA has, for example, highlighted inspiring practices for transforming the logic of food aid by the CCASs in the context of territorial cooperation (see in particular the example of the Angers CCAS developed further below) 9. Another example: as part of the « Food when you are poor » experiment, the food aid structures of the Terres de Lorraine country have begun coordinating their work to harmonise the criteria for calculating the rest of the living wage.

A clear desire to improve product quality

The issue of the quality of products distributed as part of food aid has been the subject of renewed attention for several years.

Studies carried out among food aid beneficiaries have revealed certain dissatisfaction with products, particularly those from FEAD, which are often first-rate and of mediocre quality, in terms of taste, nutritional quality but also freshness 10, with company donations often concerning products with an imminent expiry date. If we take as an indicator the ideal basket recommended by the National Nutrition and Health Programme (PNNS), we can observe an over-representation of highly sweet and salty products and a lack of fruit and vegetables 11. Above and beyond the quality of the products themselves, the beneficiaries point above all to their poor diversity and a mismatch with their needs 12.

Well aware of these issues, food aid structures are increasingly integrating the question of product quality into their actions. Partly constrained by the products they receive through FEAD and corporate donations, they are developing other supply channels to better meet the expectations of those they work with. The Restos du Coeur are, for example, working to develop short circuits for their fruit and vegetables, 25% and 54% of which are produced and delivered in the region where they are distributed 13. The CCAS of Angers has developed a partnership with a Jardin de Cocagne to offer solidarity nets of local fruit and vegetables. The Secours populaire des Hautes-Pyrénées which, in the carding of the PTCE La Bio pour tous has joined forces with several local Biocoop shops and the association for integration through economic activity Villages accueillants (Welcoming Villages) to promote its beneficiaries’ access to products from organic farming.

However, concerns remain, particularly with regard to the consequences of the increase in the proportion of donations from large and medium-sized supermarkets on the quality of the products. In its 2018 report 14, the Senate pointed out the risk of a reduction in the quality of the products distributed due to the lack of sorting by these companies. To remedy this, its rapporteurs recommended linking the advantages of tax exemption enjoyed by these structures when they make donations to the quality of the latter.

Moreover, the recent health scandals concerning minced steaks distributed within the framework of the FEAD call into question the quality of the products passing through this circuit 15.

The actions of the CCAS of Angers in favour of food aid promoting access to quality food for all

Taking advantage of a contract of national interest won by the Jardins de Cocagne integration project in Angers, which uses discarded fruit and vegetables, the CCAS of Angers has joined this initiative and in 2011 has developed an offer of « solidarity nets »: sorted and packaged within the integration project, the fruit and vegetables used are mixed with others, purchased from wholesalers, to form nets, part of the cost of which is borne by the CCAS. The distribution of the nets is accompanied by cooking workshops freely accessible to the beneficiaries. Since 2015, the CCAS has been promoting a coordination approach between the local food aid actors through the creation of a Mission d’animation et de concertation pour une alimentation solidaire (MAAS) (Coordination and Coordination Mission for Solidarity Food), which enables the CCAS to work coherently to improve distribution conditions and respond more effectively to the needs of people in food insecurity. Previously, the CCAS had already set up a directory summarising all the food aid services in its territory, with practical information (opening days and times, services offered, etc.). In addition, the CCAS of Angers is considering a social and solidarity grocery project to complement the above-mentioned actions.

On the need to overcome a distributive model that is incapable of acting on the structural causes of food insecurity

Beyond distribution: a diversification of actions to develop new forms of food-related support for people

Beyond the quality of the products, food aid, in its distributive form, is the subject of several criticisms concerning the place occupied in this system by the people who receive it and respect for their dignity 16 :

Taking these limitations into account, several organisations, including the food banks, Secours Catholique and the French Red Cross, have called for « going beyond food aid to support through food » 17. Secours Catholique also decided to gradually move away from the distribution of food parcels.

Actions that have been developed over the years by food aid actors (-rice-s) are already part of this logic: kitchen workshops, shared gardens and integration projects, particularly in the field of agriculture and food. Social and/or solidarity-based grocery shops have worked particularly hard on this notion of support by making their aid conditional on the formulation of a project and a financial contribution from the beneficiaries, in the form of a monetary contribution when the products are purchased, but also sometimes through their participation in the life of the grocery shop and its activities. More broadly, food aid organisations provide support for people in areas other than food: access to rights and administrative support, support for employment (particularly through workshops and work integration projects), access to housing, etc. 18.

This renewal and diversification of their actions positions food aid structures beyond a simple distributive action, which nevertheless remains the preferred model for combating food insecurity.

Food distribution: a palliative aid, a system for managing food insecurity to be overcome

While it now provides essential relief to people who do not have sufficient means to feed themselves, food aid remains a palliative response, the aim of which is to ensure that everyone has minimum access to food. For the state, food aid is a way of managing food insecurity rather than a policy to reduce it. Built around and thanks to surpluses and increasingly linked to the fight against food waste, the food aid distribution system has become an organised outlet for these surpluses 19, which raises the question of its sustainability: if the objective of reducing food waste at source (and not just increasing its value) is really pursued, these resources would de facto be taken away from the food aid actors. This management of the externalities produced by surpluses in supermarkets is currently mainly to their benefit, with large and medium-sized retailers benefiting both from the tax exemption resulting from their donations and from the surplus of products purchased by individuals on collection days organised by the associations that support all the logistics downstream of this donation.

As a result, other alternative initiatives must be developed to gradually overcome this logic. This was already reflected in the conclusions of Workshop 12 of the 2017 États généraux de l’alimentation, which called for a « paradigm shift from an essentially distributive model to one that provides for the coexistence of food aid and sustainable forms of access to food » 20. The recent IGAS report 21 follows the same logic by calling for the development of a systemic policy to combat food insecurity by supporting, beyond traditional food aid actions, initiatives such as purchasing groups or social and solidarity-based grocery shops.

  • 1 CLEMENT, A. (2001). De l’évergétisme antique aux Restos du coeur. État et associations dans l’histoire du secours alimentaire. RECMA - Revue internationale de l’économie sociale. N°279. p. 26–43

  • 2 PATUREL, D. (2013). Aide alimentaire et accès à l’alimentation. URL :

  • 3 BAZIN, A & BOCQUET, E. (2018). Aide alimentaire : un dispositif vital, un financement menacé ? Un modèle associatif fondé sur le bénévolat à préserver. Rapport fait au Sénat au nom de la commission des finances.

  • 4 LE MORVAN, F. & WANECQ, T. (2019). La lutte contre la précarité alimentaire. Évolution du soutien public à une politique sociale, agricole et de santé publique. Rapport IGAS n°2019-069R.

  • 5 ibidem

  • 6 Menacée de liquidation judiciaire, l’ANDES a été reprise par le Groupe SOS en 2019.

  • 7 ANSA. (2019). Pratiques inspirantes et préconisations. Projet Alim’Activ Agir contre la précarité alimentaire par la coordination territoriale.

  • 8 LE MORVAN, F. & WANECQ, T. (2019). La lutte contre la précarité alimentaire. Evolution du soutien public à une politique sociale, agricole et de santé publique. Rapport IGAS n°2019-069R. p.96

  • 9 ANSA. (2019). Pratiques inspirantes et préconisations. Projet Alim’Activ : Agir contre la précarité alimentaire par la coordination territoriale.

  • 10 Se référer notamment à : FORS. (2014). Inégalités sociales et alimentation. Quels sont les besoins et les attentes en termes d’alimentation des personnesen situation d’insécurité alimentaire et comment les dispositifs d’aide alimentaire peuvent y répondre au mieux ? Rapport final auprès du Ministère de l’agriculture, de l’agroalimentaire et de la forêt et de FranceAgriMer ; FORS. (2016). Étude portant sur les modalités de distribution de l’aide alimentaire et d’accompagnement aux personnes développées dans ce cadre. Rapport final auprès de la DGCS.

  • 11 Voir par exemple la comparaison faite avec les produits distribués par les Banques alimentaires :

  • 12 RAMEL, M. et al. (2014). Se nourrir lorsqu’on est pauvre. Analyse et ressenti de personnes en situation de précarité. ATD Quart Monde. Éditions QuartMonde.

  • 13 Restos du Coeur. (2020). Les Restos du Coeur : pour l’accès à une alimentation de qualité.

  • 14 ibidem

  • 15 Voir notamment le rapport du Sénat à ce sujet :

  • 16 Voir notamment : RAMEL, M. et al. (2014). Se nourrir lorsqu’on est pauvre. Analyse et ressenti de personnes en situation de précarité. ATD Quart Monde. Éditions Quart Monde.

  • 17 Uniopss. (2015). Dépasser l’aide alimentaire pour aller vers l’accompagnement par l’alimentation. Synthèse des travaux du groupe Alimentation de l’Uniopss.

  • 18 FORS. (2016). Étude portant sur les modalités de distribution de l’aide alimentaire et d’accompagnement aux personnes développées dans ce cadre. Rapport final auprès de la DGCS

  • 19 DOUILLET, B. (2016). De l’accès à l’alimentation durable à la démocratie alimentaire. Projet Accessible.

  • 20 Les conclusions de l’atelier sont disponibles à l’adresse suivante :

  • 21 LE MORVAN, F. & WANECQ, T. (2019). La lutte contre la précarité alimentaire. Évolution du soutien public à une politique sociale, agricole et de santé publique. Rapport IGAS n°2019-069R.


To go further