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Since we launched our nationwide food distribution scheme last year, we’ve worked hard to connect all our Foodhalls and Food stores* to a local charity. This has enabled us to redistribute surplus food such as fruit, vegetables, bakery items, and grocery items like pasta, cereal and cooking sauces that haven’t been sold at the end of the day to local charities and people in need. 

Linking our stores to c.600 local charities and community groups has seen a tremendous amount of effort from our store colleagues and we are proud to have donated more than 1.25 million meals to charity so far. Nevertheless, there is still a lot more to do. As part of the next phase of the project, we have looked carefully at how we can expand the type of food we can redistribute to include chilled food such as meat, dairy items, poultry and ready meals. This will enable M&S to help charities to feed people in need of a safe, sufficient and nutritious diet. 

One of the key challenges is that all chilled products have a use by date and, in line with regulations, we are currently unable to redistribute any food that has gone past its use by date. As chilled products typically have a short shelf life, we have looked very carefully at how we can best donate these items to our charity partners and  ensure the food we are redistributing will not become unfit for consumption shortly after collection. 

Through our partnership with Neighbourly, the social network for social good, we can remove some of the main logistical barriers to redistributing chilled food. This includes ensuring that all those charities registered have refrigeration to transport and store chilled food, as well as having the correct food hygiene credentials in place. Food safety is extremely important to us, so we were pleased to get advice from Westminster City Council, our primary authority, that they are satisfied with the safety procedures we have in place. 

Over the last month, 130 of our stores have begun redistributing surplus chilled food to their local charity partners. We will continue to roll out chilled food donations to further stores where the charity partner has the approved infrastructure in place. This follows a successful pilot over Christmas which aimed to find the most effective and safe way of redistributing surplus chilled food to ensure it is put to the best possible use.

Whilst it is still early days, we’ve seen a positive increase in the levels of donations our stores are making. For example, our store in Yeovil has donated nearly 18,500 meals to Yeovil Community Meals Service which delivers freshly cooked, ready to eat meals for older people in the community, those with mobility problems, dementia or those who are recently home from hospital. Since we added chilled food to the scheme at M&S Yeovil last month the number of meals donated has increased by 25%.  

These results are very encouraging but we know there is still a lot of work to do and there are many factors that will influence how much can be redistributed. For example, smaller stores may not always have sufficient volumes to donate daily or charities may decline some of the product on offer if it is not needed. By extending our scheme to include chilled food, we will learn more about how much can be redistributed, as we gather more data on what is surplus and what our charity partners are taking. 

Here are the key lessons we’ve learnt so far in tacking food surplus:

  1. We must continue to focus on reducing the food surplus we create first – this is our number one priority within M&S. We work extremely hard across all areas of our business – farmers, suppliers, distributors and stores – on ensuring we reduce the amount of food surplus we create in the first place. However, where there is a food surplus, we must put it to the best possible use. 

  2. Stores are making food redistribution part of their daily rhythm and routine – across our business we have many fantastic food waste champions whose passion has made all the difference in making our scheme successful. If they are away on holiday or not working in store, we still need to ensure the same level of commitment continues, so we’ve made it part of everyone’s responsibilities by launching trackers to help stores see their progress and incentivise them to keep food redistribution as a high priority. 

  3. Redistribution has been most successful where stores have a deeper relationship with their local charity partner. Building community and a direct link between the store and the charity is important. Often we find our stores have nominated their charity as they know someone who works or volunteers there or someone who accesses that provision. Lots of the charities we support are small with a low profile – they wouldn’t be able to exist without the support of their local community. The Neighbourly system enables stores to connect with charities in many ways – whether that be through fundraising as charity of the year or through volunteering. The relationship between store and charity is so much more powerful when it goes wider than food surplus and we’ve seen this in the redistribution figures. 

  4. Charity partners do not always have the capacity to take the food surplus – whether that be the volunteers to pick the food up in the evening or storage facilities.  We need to work on this to help facilitate the process. The Neighbourly platform has been invaluable in helping us to understand our local charity partners’ capabilities, operating times and challenges. Our stores also liaise and have regular dialogue with their partners – how are they using the food? Is it the types of food they need and are we always ensuring our store colleagues only give away food that the charity can use? 

  5. Our store staff are proud of the redistribution work – by working with individual local charities that matter to our employees and customers, we can positively engage with the local community and help make a difference. Directly linking our stores to local community projects has given is the ability to localise Plan A more and bring it to life in the communities that we serve. It has also helped us engage and motivate our employees, who are proud to work for M&S as a result.  

  6. We will continue to find solutions to the challenges of redistributing surplus food – whilst we are encouraged by the early results of the chilled food surplus donations, we will continue to remain restless in finding new ways to donate more of our food surplus – whilst ensuring we do this with a focus on food safety, as well as helping our charity partners benefit. 

*Does not include franchise M&S Simply Food stores such as railway and BP stores.