Czechs increasingly generous, says organizer of national food collection

Photo: CTK

Over 170 tonnes of food was donated to Czech charities and NGOs in the second national food collection that took place over the weekend. Individuals, supermarket chains and food producers all chipped in to provide some 350,000 meals for those in need. Organizers consider the food drive’s second edition a major success, and say that a recent change in tax rules will prompt companies to donate more food in the future. I discussed the results of the national food collection with Pavlína Kalousová, the head of Business for Society, a corporate responsibility platform that organized the campaign.

Pavlína Kalousová,  photo: CSR Europe
“This year’s national food collection has been a great success. We were expecting to collect around 100 tonnes of food because we increased the number of shops and places where people could come and donate food. But 173 tonnes is a major success, and it shows a wave of solidarity among people in the Czech Republic.”

This has been the second time the food collection was held. How did the idea first come about?

“We started last year when we were approached by one of the retailers, Tesco. They have a tradition of food collections in the UK, and they came to us, the group Business for Society, and said, ‘we would like to implement the idea in the Czech Republic but we would like to have more partners and retailers involved’.

“Business for Society, an umbrella organization for responsible business, approached other retailers and food producers as well as food banks and other NGOs, and we launched the national food collection. The first year was a pilot which took place in some 100 shops, and this year, we made it bigger and we expanded to 386 shops across the country:”

Did all the major retailers agree to take part?

“There was one that said ‘no, thank you’ but after the first year’s success, we were approached by others who joined so we had three more retailers this year, and had also more food producers. We have two kinds of partners: retailers provide the facilities and help us organize the collection, and food producers give food directly to NGOs and food banks.”

The donated food goes to food banks and NGOs which distribute it to charities and other groups working with those in need. But is this really necessary in today’s Czech Republic? Are there really so many people who cannot afford to buy food?

“That’s one thing we talked about with many people who came to the shops to donate food and were wondering what the real need was. The estimate by the Czech Statistics Office is that around 15 percent of the population are at risk or suffer from poverty. That means these people have to make everyday choices whether to buy food, pay the rent, or buy medicine.

Photo: CTK
“The elderly, mothers with more children, the homeless people of those living in institutional care are the most vulnerable. The estimate is between 300,000 and 500,000 people who potentially need assistance with food.”

The collection provided some 350,000 meals. How significant a contribution is it? How long will it last?

“The food is used in two ways. It’s either distributed in the form of food packages to families or elderly people, or sent to soup kitchens that help the homeless. Last year, the food lasted for three to six months in the non-profit groups, so our estimate is that we will have enough food until next May.

“But we only collected items such as tins, pasta, flour, salt, and so on, and we are at the same time motivating companies to give various other foodstuffs that are close to their expiration dates.”

You asked people to donate durable or canned food. What were the most frequently donated items?

“We actually had a shopping list on a leaflet with recommended items people should buy. But there were several types of donors: one was very pragmatic and bought flour, sugar and things like that, the basic food.

“But there were also women and mothers who bought things for children because they wanted to make a better Christmas for them. So I can’t say there were items that would prevail but in general, we had 15 items that were equally donated.”

Most of the food you collected, some 146 tonnes, came from members of the public. Do you really see that people increasingly feel solidarity with those in need?

“First of all, the idea is becoming more common but there is certainly more willingness to donate food than money. That was one of the comments we heard a lot. People think that food will really be used for the purpose they donate it to. With money, they sometimes have questions about whether it’s used effectively or not.”

And what about companies? Would you like to see more of them joining in, and donating more food?

Photo: CTK
“We are motivating companies to give throughout the year. Retailers for instance can give food nearing expiration to food banks once a week, and they do it. We also motivated some new companies to join the collection and give on the opportunity of the national food collection.

“But as there is a change in VAT on donated food, I expect that more firms will donate. It has been administratively and financially demanding for them so far, and those who did it did it as part of their corporate responsibility programme.”

The change you mentioned was announced by the Finance Ministry about two weeks ago; beginning in December, companies that donate food will not be required to pay the 15-percent value added tax on it. How much will it help, do you think?

“It’s very big help. Since last year’s food collection, Business for Society was working with experts on the recommendations for the ministry, and we have been lobbying for the change. So I’m very happy that the Finance Ministry announced the change on the occasion of the second national collection.

“The change will be very significant because so far, all retailers and food producers had to pay 15 percent VAT on donated food, and they were donation food at commercial prices. So it was a financial burden for them, because it was cheaper for them to dispose of the food than to donate it.

“That was a paradox that we wanted to change. We analysed the situation in other EU countries in the region, and we came up with a proposal so since December 15, companies will be donating food with value that is close to zero, and naturally, zero VAT.”

How did you find dealing with the ministry – were they helpful or was it an uphill battle?

“We had some debates at the ministry but when the finance minister [Andrej Babiš] actually learned about it, it was quite quick.”

With these taxation changes and the success of this year, are you hoping to grow even bigger next year? Or do you think that with companies no longer having to pay the tax on donated food, there won’t be as much need for such collections?

Photo: Eva Odstrčilová,  Czech Radio
“Our long-term goal is the elimination of food waste. The national food collection is just a part of our activities so we will now focus on informing companies of the legal change and of the opportunities they have in preventing food waste at the end of the chain.

“But next year, we want to approach consumers in terms of how they can deal with food, about what the food life is and what expiration means, and that it’s better if it helps people than when it’s disposed of.”