It’s estimated that anything up to 3.5 million tonnes of in-date, wholesome food is going to waste in the UK’s food supply chain every year. It’s food that’s perfectly edible, yet isn’t reaching people’s mouths. Why?
The huge logistical operation of getting food to tens of millions of people around the UK every day takes planning. Even with the best systems in place, there are sometimes forecasting errors; it can be difficult to sell food in Christmas packaging, even if it’s in-date in January. In complex manufacturing processes, labelling can sometimes be incorrect, even if the product inside is good to eat. As an industry, food producers try hard to avoid this, because it affects their bottom line. But once surplus stock, as it’s known, has been created, it’s what happens to it next that really matters.
Surplus stock in the supply chain can be seen as waste. My organisation, Company Shop, sees it as food, because that’s what it is. Perfectly edible food, with a value. And once it has a value, it becomes a commodity that has another life.
Marks & Spencer understands this. We work with more than 70 of their suppliers to take surplus stock from their supply chain and keep it as food, stopping it from going to waste. For this to happen, organisations involved in food manufacture, distribution and retail need to challenge the conventions that allow edible food to become waste. M&S’s ‘Plan A’ is doing a superb job in meeting that challenge, examining every step of the food supply chain, to make sure edible food reaches people’s plates.
So what happens to that food, after it’s been stopped from going to waste? It gets redistributed to our network of more than 30 staff shops, where our members, who work in the food industry, can buy it at up to 70% off the original retail price. This provides an environmentally sustainable solution for retailers and suppliers, generating a return on produce that would usually go to landfill or anaerobic digestion, at a cost. Because our members understand where the food has come from, and why it’s being sold at a discount, manufacturers and retailers get the brand security they need.
As well as a financial return, the surplus stock from retailers such as M&S has a social benefit too. Company Shop is about to expand a not-for-profit social enterprise we created called Community Shop, pictured at the top of the article. The model of offering perfectly edible surplus food from the supply chain to a membership is the same as with Company Shop, except the members are people living in a certain geographical area, who are on the cusp of food poverty, and determined to improve their lives. The heavily discounted food eases the pressure on family budgets, while members are enrolled on a programme of free, professional support, tailored to their needs, such as personal development plans, employment and skills training, and debt advice.
The first Community Shop is based in Goldthorpe in South Yorkshire. In its first six months of operation, £360,000 of debt was managed, with creditors contacted and repayment terms renegotiated. 22 people progressed into work, with 30 more enrolled in a skills academy with guaranteed job interviews. 22 external services, such as Citizens Advice, the Credit Union and NHS Action for Children were able to enhance their impact by our mentors building links with members. In all, 500 members received our support – that’s 500 families who felt an impact from Community Shop, through giving surplus food from the supply chain a value, and stopping it from going to waste.
It was a great honour to be able to deliver such a positive message to Marks & Spencer at a recent Plan A event, and I would like to thank everyone involved in the organisation who is challenging waste at every stage in the food supply chain. Through our collaboration, we’re seeing the positive impact of stopping good food from going to waste.
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