Not just a food bank … An M&S-filled food bank. Upmarket grocer plans to use social app to supply local charities with its surplus food and help cut waste
Marks & Spencer is to distribute thousands of tonnes of surplus food under a scheme that will use a social networking app to link all 500 of its UK stores to local charities, including food banks.
The retailer, which has committed to cutting food waste from stores by a fifth by 2020, has been testing different ways of running the scheme at 45 outlets and opted to work in partnership with the Neighbourly app.Eighteen months on, it is ready to expand the scheme nationwide and said it should be up and running by next spring.
“Our priority is to reduce food waste while ensuring that, where there is a food surplus, we put it to the best possible use,” said Louise Nicholls, head of responsible sourcing at M&S.
She said the retailer had already dramatically cut food waste by in-store measures, such as discounting stock close to its use-by date earlier in the day, but believed nearly half of the remaining waste was edible.
At present, M&S sends food waste to anaerobic digestion energy plants. The process can be costly and means thousands of tonnes of perfectly edible food never reaches a dinner plate.
In the first stage of the redistribution scheme, M&S is looking for new charity partners, such as food banks, community cafes, homelessness groups and community shops to work with 105 more stores by December. The rest of its UK stores will join the programme by next spring.
Charities that want to collect free food sign up to the Neighbourly app with their requirements. Each day M&S stores register the spare food they have on offer and alert local charities.
The group’s Cribbs Causeway store in Bristol has been working with Neighbourly for six months, during which time it has distributed 4 tonnes of food waste – about 10% of its total – to local charities including North Bristol food bank and the Upper Horfield Community Trust. The Trust is home to Daisy’s cafe which provides free meals and discounted meals for mental health groups and the elderly as it tries to bring vulnerablepeople together.
Tina Magee, who runs the cafe, said: “We couldn’t have carried on without M&S. I was funding things myself.” Now she is able to provide free meals for children once a week by selling low-price meals to other groups.
The Neighbourly app collates information on how much is being redistributed, helping M&S identify where waste is occurring.
Nicholls said: “This gives us visibility to track exactly what product is going where and to tell a more accurate story about what is happening with our surplus food. When you make food surplus more visible then you can reduce it.”
The scheme launches as supermarkets face rising pressure to reduce waste. Just over 1%, or 200,000 tonnes of food wasted in the UK comes from stores, according to figures released esrlier this year by the government-backed Waste Resources Action Programme (Wrap) . Of the estimated 15m tonnes of food thrown away in the UK each year, more than half is disposed of in people’s homes.
In June, Labour MP Diane Abbott tabled an early-day motion calling on the government to introduce legislation that would ban supermarkets from throwing away food that is approaching its best-before date and instead make it available to charities.
The idea was prompted by the introduction of similar legislation in France, which now bans large supermarkets from throwing away food in favour of handing it to charities or for animal feed.
In June, Tesco started a similar scheme in partnership with food redistribution charity FareShare, which could hand tens of thousands of tonnes of surplus food from its stores to local charities. Until recently, only Sainsbury’s operated a nationwide scheme to distribute food left over in stores to charities. About 300 of its 1,200 stores are involved.
M&S’s food distribution scheme is an extension of the retailer’s existing relationship with Neighbourly which it uses to connect store staff with local charities for volunteering or fundraising.
Starbucks, Wagamama and Wessex Water also work with the Bristol-based company, which launched last year. But M&S is the first to donate food waste via the service which aims to connect socially-conscious companies with local good causes. It is free to use for charities but charges its business partners, including M&S, a subscription fee.
Nicholls said building local relationships could all be complementary. “It is another way to build a connection. It may be in time that charities get less food but they get more volunteering.” She said M&S opted to work with Neighbourly because the trials had shown shops needed to work with a wide variety of charitable groups based close by.
M&S tried a similar redistribution scheme about seven years ago, but it never took off due to the complicated and time consuming nature of the paperwork required to establish the credentials of charities. Under the new scheme, Neighbourly handles that side of things centrally.
“Now it is a really simple process for stores,” Nicholls said.