Ocado is an online supermarket which began life in the U.K. 18 years ago. Everything we do is built around our proprietary technology, including our three Customer Fulfillment Centres (CFCs), which are huge, highly automated warehouses where all of our shopping is packed. As part of our commitment to operational efficiency, our goal is that no edible food will be wasted; we’ve always made a conscious effort to redistribute surplus food because we’d rather see food in someone’s belly than in the bin. Such a lean operation makes forecasting less risky than it is for supermarkets operating from hundreds of bricks and mortar stores, but it is not entirely without risk.
We offer customers a Product Life Guarantee – a commitment, visible on our website and receipts, to the minimum number of days our customers will have to enjoy their food at home before expiry. Although we have very advanced forecasting software, we make stock availability a priority and let customers edit their online order right up until it is packed – a matter of hours before delivery. A consequence of these excellent customer propositions is that we sometimes have food that is still fresh, but we can’t sell to customers.
Around 11% of our range is made up of fresh and chilled products. That’s over 5,600 items (even more at important seasonal times like Christmas) which all have a short shelf life. The Product Life Guarantee actually gives us a unique opportunity when it comes to redistributing fresh food surplus. Our 17 Food Partners (food banks, charities, community groups and organisations) receive fresh food that still has a few days shelf life left – rather than only ambient goods, or fresh food which expires on the day of receipt. This gives our Food Partners precious time to redistribute fresh food to individuals and families, or even other organisations who can prepare meals on behalf of those in need.
As we’ve built new sites, we’ve prioritised finding routes for food surplus before launch, a testament to our commitment to redistribute food and prevent waste. In 2017 alone, we redistributed 2,200 tonnes of food, and over 95% of this food was fresh. The only food wasted was inedible – for example, defrosted frozen products or meat and fish with broken seals. None of our food waste goes to landfill – if it’s inedible, it goes to anaerobic digestion.
Case study: Ediblelinks
One of the Food Partnerships we’re proudest of started life just over five years ago. At the end of 2012, before we launched our Dordon CFC in Warwickshire, we met with local council representatives to discuss routes for food surplus and local employment opportunities. The CFC sits in between two boroughs, Nuneaton & Bedworth, and North Warwickshire, so we were looking to support people in both areas.
North Warwickshire Borough is a rural, former mining area covering 110 square miles with a population of nearly 64,000 people; of the 27,000 households, 20% receive Housing Benefit or Council Tax Support. It comes in at 178 out of 354 in the Communities and Local Government Deprivation Index, indicating above-average levels of deprivation.
Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough is more urban, with over 52,000 households. It’s more deprived than North Warwickshire, with 25% of households in receipt of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Support. It sits at 109th in the Communities and Local Government Deprivation Index. Information supplied by Public Health suggests people in the North of Warwickshire live on average 10 years less than in the rest of the county, with obesity, heart disease and diabetes much higher than the U.K. national average, and teenage conception rates amongst some of the highest in the country. The two areas fall within the top 10% of most deprived areas in the U.K. on the overall Index of Multiple Deprivation 2015. They have the largest (and growing) concentration of children living in low-income families (19.5%) and pension credit claimants for the area (20%) are the highest in Warwickshire.
Following the recession, when many local councils under severe budget constraints were pulling funding for community-based initiatives, North Warwickshire Borough Council decided to invest time and gifts-in-kind into a project with us, focusing on redistributing food surplus to a hungry community. In just 13 weeks a charity partner was found to run the area’s first food bank, stocked entirely by surplus from Ocado. Initially, the food bank provided around 50 emergency food parcels per month and received the equivalent of around 120 bags of shopping per week.
In April 2017 a small local charity, Healthy Living Network, stepped up to run the project. Their goal is to build a more resilient community – no longer reliant on food banks – by improving health and wellbeing outcomes for the local population. A full-time manager was loaned from the charity, and the partnership between Ocado, the Healthy Living Network and North Warwickshire Borough Council was officially born, under the name Ediblelinks.
With a stronger, more robust partnership in place, the project was able to develop significantly. What started as a simple food bank transformed into something quite different. Alongside providing emergency food parcels to families in crisis, Ediblelinks became a logistics hub, redistributing food surplus to ‘at risk’ families who would not necessarily be eligible to access a food bank through innovative pop-up Honesty Shops, bolstering grassroots community groups, and setting up food skills and social eating projects. Free school meals clubs have been set up in 56 schools, improving attendance, pupil and parent engagement, and academic achievement in the area.
Relationships with local government services such as the NHS, Housing Office, and Citizens Advice have been strengthened, giving beneficiaries multiple front doors to access the resource. We donated two refrigerated vans so Ediblelinks could safely collect and deliver fresh surplus, and helped train their drivers with our award winning Driver Risk Management Training programme.
We’ve shared expertise in IT and HR policies, providing training and consultation where required. This has helped create a more efficient operation, but upskilling volunteers – some of whom were previously deemed ‘unfit for work’ – has been a vital way of providing career pathways, improving confidence and sense of purpose within the community. As a result, 19 volunteers have gone on to find employment.
Aside from helping a historically underprivileged area become more resilient, the project’s network provides exciting opportunities for the community. Leveraging the relationships formed through the school eating network, we’re sharing our expertise through road safety education projects. Ediblelinks are working on a paid-for membership scheme with community groups to help the project become sustainable. Additional food surplus partners are being brought into the mix, so that the partnership is not just reliant on one source, and can remain a strong and sustainable force for good in the North Warwickshire community for years to come.
In April 2013, the council began collecting 40 to 60 totes of food per week, this equates to roughly 120–180 bags of shopping. Now, Ediblelinks redistributes 7 tonnes of food surplus per month. In mid-May, Ediblelinks received confirmation of Big Lottery funding. Once the funding is received, capacity constraints will be lifted and we expect to be able to increase donations to 19 tonnes per month.
Shortly after opening, the food bank issued 50 emergency food parcels to residents every month; today this figure is over 50 per week. Access has increased dramatically thanks to two Borough Councils working collaboratively to allow referrals through multiple front doors; this involves a huge amount of administration and resources on their part, bringing together different departments and offices to foster strong inter-agency relationships. From a restorative stance, individuals and families referred by the public sector are much more able to regain physical and mental wellbeing; one patient referred by the NHS regained enough weight to enable life-saving surgery. Young women reporting that they were skipping education on a monthly basis through lack of access to feminine hygiene products were able to maintain consistent attendance. A pilot referring families in or at risk of falling into rent arrears over the summer holidays, a time when children spend more time at home and families have more outgoings on food, reported 40% of participants were able to stay on top of finances. This side of the project helps people get out of crisis while retaining dignity.
In line with the partnership’s goal to create a more resilient community no longer reliant on food banks, 60% of surplus donations are now redistributed to the community group membership network, built up of 153 members and counting. The impact of this is immensely personal – each community group has its own unique activities, beneficiaries and goals; it is all slowly increasing opportunities for, and the wellbeing of, the community. A marching band used the money saved on food to hire a Carer, facilitating less-abled band members to attend a week-long residency. After overhearing at a Stay & Play group that financial constraints were forcing parents to shoplift nappies and formula, these items were provided at pop-up Honesty Shops, operating under a ‘pay what you can afford’ model. A local dementia group now offers a hot meal instead of simply tea, coffee, and biscuits. Food skills groups and social eating opportunities are helping people learn how to take better care of their nutrition, and access more balanced meals.
Relationships with 56 schools have facilitated breakfast and after-school food clubs. One secondary school improved its Ofsted rating significantly and become a Top 10 School in Warwickshire. The Head Teacher puts a large part of the success down to the better relationships fostered between pupils and families, citing surplus food as an ‘engager’. Another Head Teacher suggested increased food access was holistically increasing academic results, by way of increasing attendance, pupil engagement and attention spans.
Today, Ediblelinks are collecting food from Dordon CFC every weekday. Over 300 tonnes of food has been donated between April 2017 and May this year, and over 6,000 people in the area have benefited.
Ocado and food redistribution
Less than 1 in 6,000 units (0.017%) of food goes to waste at Ocado.
No edible food is wasted; inedible food goes to anaerobic digestion.
2,200 tonnes of fresh food donated or redistributed in 2017 alone.
Eight refrigerated vans donated, to better enable food redistribution.
Ocado customers have donated over half a million pounds towards food redistribution projects; for every pound Ocado customers donate, at least £2 worth of groceries are donated to charity.
The stigma associated with handouts from food banks prevents some people from seeking help. Others find themselves struggling, but don’t meet eligibility criteria, so can’t access support. Pop-up honesty shops were set up in response to members of the community reporting they were forced to shoplift to help feed and clothe their children. This model is just one of the ‘community-led’ initiatives Ediblelinks introduced to prevent crisis and create space for people to make better choices.
Creating space for change
Ediblelinks’ flexible approach allows them to act as a testbed for new initiatives. During the 2017 summer holidays, a time when families living below the poverty line may have to choose between feeding children at home or paying bills, Ediblelinks ran a test project with the local council. Ten families in social housing were offered food parcels over the six week period, to see if this would decrease the risk of them falling into rent arrears. Two families were in credit on rent accounts and six families who previously fell into debt during this period paid rent on time.
Empowering Food Partners
With all donations of fresh surplus, we ask Food Partners to collect using refrigerated transport – this is to ensure that the chill chain is maintained and the food remains safe to eat. Financially, this was proving prohibitive to smaller food charities like Ediblelinks. In May 2017, we decided to give some of our charity Food Partners refrigerated vans, which we lease, tax and maintain for them on an ongoing basis. The vans are paid for using funds collected from the Single Use Carrier Bag Charge – more commonly known as the 5p Bag Tax – legislation aimed at reducing waste and protect wildlife.
Ocado customers are a generous bunch. They asked us for a way to donate food to those in need as part of their weekly shop, the same way they can in traditional supermarkets, which often have ‘food bank bins’ after the checkout. In December 2014, we launched Donate Food with Ocado, which gives customers a way to donate £2.50, £5, or £10 to help fight food poverty. For every £1 our customers give, we give £2 worth of food to our Food Partners. The beauty of this scheme is that rather than the Partners being given whatever a customer thinks is the right thing to donate, they get to choose what they need most from a long list of fresh and ambient products. This puts the power back in their hands, helping them better serve their communities, and turning the idea of a food bank on its head. In three years, Ocado customers have donated over £260,000, and we’ve matched that with 90 tonnes of food. Donate Food With Ocado is part of our wider food redistribution strategy, which saw 2,200 tonnes redistributed in 2017 alone.
We’re determined that our food surplus doesn’t go to waste – and that means making sure our Food Partners aren’t overloaded with food and forced to waste it, either. We work with each Food Partner closely, ramping up deliveries as and when they’re ready. That way they’re not left with boundless baked beans, or piles of potatoes.
It’s not just food donations and equipment that Food Partners need. As they grow, their challenges increase, so we’ve supported them with our expertise. We’ve been able to offer Ediblelinks, and other Food Partners training and advice on HR policies, IT systems, Social Media, PR, and Driver Risk Management, so that they’re able to grow sustainably.
This project brings together people across public, private and charity sectors to be a force for good. It takes a huge private sector problem – food waste – and uses it to solve a public sector one – deprivation and cycles of poverty – using management and expertise from a charity focused on improving health and wellbeing. This is a model which other businesses and areas could easily adopt, create better outcomes for people across the world.