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Food Fight! Oxford and Cambridge compete to tackle food poverty

Amelia Dovell talks to Josh Tulloch, founder of Because We Can, about the 2023 BOGOF challenge.

This summer, the long-anticipated ‘Great Oxbridge BOGOF’ will be returning for its 3rd run. The food drive competition is run by the charity ‘Because We Can’, and sees the Colleges of Oxford and Cambridge take part in a friendly competition, collecting food and essential items for local food banks. This time, the food drive begins on Saturday 3rd June and ends on Thursday 15th June, with 34 Oxbridge colleges taking part. BOGOF stands for ‘Buy One, Give One Free’, and is based on the idea that when buying an essential item that a local food bank needs, students can buy an extra one and donate it towards the food drive. This simple premise has led to impactful results in the past, with over 15,000 items collected in 2020 and 2021.

The food drive has been coordinated between the Oxford SU, Cambridge SU, and Oxbridge college charity officers. The initiative itself is led by Josh Tulloch, an Oxford alum, ex-LMH JCR president, and founder of the ‘Because We Can’ charity. Having experienced food insecurity and homelessness himself, Josh began food drive competitions while in secondary school in 2014, which grew into the ‘Because We Can’ charity, which aims to use creative ways to solve social problems such as food poverty. 

The lighthearted nature of the friendly competition addresses serious social realities. The campaign comes at a crucial time; Oxford Food Hub have been struggling to keep up with an increase in demand, with many of those who used to donate to the food bank now relying on it. Their coordinator, Spencer Lawes, has said that “food stock levels have decreased yet further, and so the proceeds of this BOGOF challenge will be even more important to us and the charities we support (which is now over 200!)”. The Trussell Trust reported that between April 2022 and March 2023, the number of people that used a food bank for the first time was 760,000, with overall numbers up 37% from the year before. Out of the 3 million emergency food banks distributed in 2022, 1.1 million went to children. On a more local scale, in Oxford itself, 29% of children live below the poverty line, and the number of homeless people has increased by 400% since 2012. 

Josh emphasised the crisis as reflective of wider problems the UK is facing – the cost of living crisis, rising fuel prices, and a shortage of HGV drivers meaning that supply chains that food banks rely on are being disrupted, and the usual supply of food is running low. “There are systemic, structural issues which have been going on for well over a decade now… Just donating to Food banks, who are at the end of the line of more systemic problems, isn’t going to solve these problems.”

In an article written by the Director of Policy at Trussell Trust, it was noted that “food banks and charitable support are not the solution” to the crisis, and that only with real sustainable change, such as reforming universal credit, will the crisis end. The fact that food banks exist is indicative of the failures of the government to keep up with people’s basic needs, or increasing wages to meet rising costs. Though Josh accepts that a food drive is certainly “treating the symptoms” of the crisis, he emphasises that it is something that urgently needs to be done. Alleviating the short term problems while advocating for long term solutions is the way to go:  “We have to take two views of any problem that we see in society. How do we deal with the real hurt and the pain that people are feeling now? It’s no good to go out on the streets with placards calling for systemic change while mothers and fathers can’t feed their children. That’s where we’ve got to do both.”

Through the grandeur of Oxford’s historical buildings and traditions, as well as the countless events and seemingly endless tasks of the typical Oxford student, students are likely to be less aware of “the reality of what’s going on in the world”, which Josh thinks only becomes more evident after leaving university. On an institutional level though, considering the amount of land Oxford colleges own in the area, and the wealth that is amassed through property and endowments, Josh thinks that Oxford could do more to help local communities. “There’s a lot of wealth – inaccessible wealth in the form of property, and accessible wealth like the endowments that colleges manage. There is an institutional disconnect, just in general, between the value that it has for the university itself, and the value that it could have for local communities.”

For now, on the student-led front, an awareness of social issues is key to improving the situation. Josh hopes that the campaign can foster long-term behaviour, for example continuing the momentum of the food drive by donating to the collections found at local supermarkets. As BOGOF develops, the initiative will be pushed towards addressing systemic, institutional issues, and may potentially serve as a model for universities across the UK, leveraging Varsity relationships until the food drive becomes a national competition. 

Reflecting on the previous successes of the BOGOF challenge, Josh said that “as soon as people know about the issue, and know it’s as simple as buying an extra can of food and donating it, they are more than willing to get involved.” Hopefully, understanding that each of our individual donations can create a big difference in the local community will meet the overall target of 10,000 items being collected this year. In the spirit of friendly competition, it also wouldn’t hurt to beat Cambridge for the third time.

Items to donate:  Tinned fruit, veg, pulses etc, cooking oil, rice, pasta, tea, instant coffee, sugar, peanut butter, honey, marmite, breakfast cereals, rice pudding, tinned custard, sweet treats of any kind, toiletries, nappies and sanitary products. 

Follow the ‘Because We Can’ Facebook page to see updates on the challenge and further resources about food poverty: https://www.facebook.com/pg/becausewecanuk/ 

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