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How Does Surplus Food from Supermarkets Get to the People Who Need it?

With awareness of the problem of food waste growing, more and more schemes are seeing surplus food put to good use. Many UK supermarkets are starting to tackle food waste by donating surplus food to charities. But how do these schemes actually work?

Supermarket Surplus Food and What Causes It

Supermarkets waste edible food for all sorts of reasons. They might have ordered more food than they need, leaving some unsold. Food might have arrived in the wrong packaging. Food might be past its best-before date, but still safe to eat. Or certain foods might be discontinued.

While retailers and wholesalers are only responsible for around 3% of all post-farm-gate food waste in the UK, that’s still a large amount. 300,000 tonnes of food a year! If it were all edible, it would be enough to feed over 300,000 people for a year.

supermarket surplus

While it’s not clear how much of that waste is fit for human consumption, resource efficiency experts WRAP estimate that only 5,000 tonnes are currently redistributed for people to eat. An investigation by the Evening Standard newspaper estimated that the top 10 supermarkets together donate over 7,800 tonnes in a year. Sainsbury’s leads the way with 7.6% of its surplus food donated. The rest is fed to animals, composted, spread on farmland or thrown away.
5,000 or 7,800 tonnes, there’s still a long way before we reach 300,000.

So there’s a lot of room for improvement. WRAP estimates that an extra 270 million meals a year could be redistributed from the UK grocery supply chain.

Retailers and food suppliers in Spain and France respectively donate 118,000 and 100,000 tonnes of surplus food in a year. France has even banned supermarkets from throwing out edible food, which has led to more and better donations to food banks.

Could British supermarkets achieve the same?

How Food Waste Is Currently Being Tackled by Supermarkets

Many supermarkets are now making efforts to reduce food waste in the first place.

Tesco, for example, has pledged to end edible food waste this year. But supermarkets could also help us avoid waste at home by not running multibuy offers that tempt us to buy more than necessary. Could these ‘deals’ simply be the chains passing the buck onto us by getting us to buy their surplus stock anyway?

One branch of the Co-op has shown exceptional commitment to the cause. They’ve started selling store-cupboard staples at crazy cheap prices. Once items such as pasta have gone past their best-before date but are still edible, they’re sold off. Pasta for 10 pence? Yes please!

But it’s not just about waste produced by shops and supermarkets. Some are reducing waste from farms by selling “wonky veg” ranges.

Some supermarkets, including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose are tackling the problem in other ways. They’re donating edible surplus food to charities to be made into nourishing meals. Homeless hostels, school breakfast clubs and shelters for domestic violence victims all benefit.

How Is Edible Food Redistributed?

It’s not as simple as you might think to donate surplus food. There has to be a way of making sure that the food is still safe to eat.

And it’s inherently difficult to predict when surplus food will be available. So someone needs to manage the logistics of collection, storage and delivery. Small charities may not have the space to store large amounts of food. Supermarkets need to know that any donated food is going to a genuine charitable organisation. While charities need a way of knowing when and where food is available.

One solution is for a third party to deal with all the stages between supermarket and charity. FareShare is one example. They are the UK’s longest running food redistribution charity. It was jointly founded by homeless charity Crisis and supermarket Sainsbury’s in the 1990s. FareShare redistributes food to over 6,700 charities and community groups. In 2016 they delivered enough food for over 28 million meals!

The FareShare Way

FareShare uses two main methods to get surplus food from supermarkets to those who need it.

Charities can sign up for regular deliveries of food through FareShare membership. FareShare collects surplus food from supermarkets and takes it to one of 21 warehouses across the country. These facilities can store chilled, frozen and ambient food. Since the warehouses are so large, spikes in supply are not a problem – FareShare has room for it all.

At the warehouse, the food is sorted so that each charity can get the mix of food needed to provide healthy meals. Volunteer drivers then distribute the food to the charities, who have specified how much food they need. Charities can also pick up food directly from the warehouse.

Or, supermarkets and charities can use an app called FareShare FoodCloud. Supermarkets upload details of surplus food to the app, alerting local charities. The charity can then collect food directly from the supermarket.

In both cases, the charities must be vetted. FareShare will check that they’re able to store and handle the food safely. FareShare never takes food that has gone past its use-by date, as this would be unsafe. But they can take food that has gone past its best-before date. Supermarkets don’t have to check every charity themselves – making it easier for them to donate food.

Other Ways to Redistribute Surplus Food

FareShare isn’t the only option for supermarkets wanting to redistribute surplus food.

Supermarkets can also choose to donate to charities directly. Thornton’s Budgens gives surplus food to One Support, which supports homeless adults. Certain Sainsbury’s stores support Hubbub’s Community Fridge Network.

Plan Zheroes work similarly to FareShare. They provide a website where businesses with surplus food can upload details. Nearby charities are then alerted. Volunteers in the local area then take the food from the supermarket to the charity.

The Trussell Trust runs a network of 400 food banks across the UK. They deal with the logistics including collecting food from businesses, individuals and supermarkets. They also sort the food to check that it’s in date and package it up to give to people who need emergency food.

Supermarkets can also use Neighbourly. This app connects stores with charities and is used by Lidl. OLIO uses volunteers known as Food Waste Heroes to collect surplus food from supermarkets and restaurants. Volunteers then list it on the app for local individuals to claim.

Efforts to tackle food waste are growing, but there’s a long way to go. Why not ask your local supermarket what they’re doing to tackle the problem of food waste? With so much choice, there’s likely to be at least one scheme that suits them. If you know a local charity that could use food, point them in the direction of a food donation organisation.

Together, we can tackle food waste and hunger, and doesn’t that feel great?

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