Any fresh produce company in the UK looking to find a revenue stream for their ‘waste’ product and tick those CSR boxes along the way could do a lot worse than exploring the opportunities to supply surplus product to London Produce Show and Conference charity partner Community Shop
The UK’s first social supermarket became a partner of the UK’s largest fresh produce show in its inaugural year and took away tonnes of produce left behind at the end of the day by exhibitors. Its first London store had been due to open in Newham in the days before the show took place, but due to a few logistical hitches, that location had to be put on hold.
The grateful recipients of most of the donated produce from the show therefore were the team at Community Shop’s first UK store, in Goldthorpe, Yorkshire. The rest flowed into the Doncaster centre that consolidates, repacks and distributes around 30,000 tonnes of food every year to Company Shop, the forerunner and for-profit enterprise sister of Community Shop.
Community Shop has an agreement in place with the Greater London Authority (GLA) that it will open six social supermarkets in the most deprived areas of the city. There is no set timeframe to the project, but immediately the Newham location delay, attention shifted to finding an alternative first site.
Discussions with Lambeth Borough Council proved the catalyst, when an empty site in West Norwood, which falls squarely into the target demographic, was pinpointed. Lambeth is the GLA’s designated inner London Food Flagship Borough. The GLA provides funding to the borough to find innovative solutions to food access, food democracy, production etc… and, in that environment, an arrangement with Community Shop fit snugly into its wider strategic goal of increasing access to good quality food for its residents.
The large site, squeezed in between and behind the local recycling centre and outdoor basketball court, had been disused for a while since residents bored of the constant noise generated by vehicles driven by the street cleaners and dustbin men who used it as a sanitary site. “It was just rows and rows of showers basically,” says manager Clara Widdison. “But we had a team of builders working 24-7 for five weeks on it and we turned it around amazingly quickly.
“We have space aplenty here and in London, that’s a huge thing,” she says. “It is extremely hard to find the right location and we are very fortunate that we were able to secure this property. I often look around the place and think it’s a small miracle.”
So quickly did they turn the site around in fact that it managed to open its doors in time for Christmas 2014. “A lot of people said ‘why open in December’ but it was the ideal time. We have had feedback telling us that for members who had not been able to buy premium brand food for years, to be able to serve their family M&S [Marks and Spencer] food at Christmas was a huge boost.”
Surplus, but not waste
All of the food that Community Shop sells is surplus for any number of reasons, though incorrect packaging and forecasting errors are prevalent. “We certainly wouldn’t sell anything that is beyond its sell-by date,” says Widdison. “All of this food would have gone to landfill or anaerobic digestion otherwise. The big retailers work with us because they know we will treat their food in the same way that they do. If we can’t sell it, then we’ll take it to anaerobic digestion.”
To see Tesco, M&S, Waitrose, Morrisons, Asda and more brands jutted up against each other on the shelves is surprisingly heart-warming, and while everything is well received, there are favourites. “The premium stuff is very popular – brands such as M&S, Waitrose and Ocado that our members just can’t afford normally. But fresh produce is extremely popular too – members have learnt that our main deliveries arrive on Monday’s Wednesdays and Fridays and they are queuing on those days to get in.”
Produce Business UK visited on a Wednesday morning prior to opening and sadly the produce section was under-stocked to say the least. A back-of-store deal with M&S meant that there were plenty of beautiful bouquets of flowers on display, but a couple of bananas and a couple of handfuls of Bramley apples were testament to the fact that this industry could be more engaged. “I’d have to say this is unusual,” Widdison was quick to point out. “But produce is something we struggle with. We really do need good partners to ensure that our produce section is delivering consistently.
“This isn’t just about donating food to charity. It is an opportunity for a new revenue stream; we’re not asking for produce for nothing, we pay for it. As a new kid on the block, we’re just trying to open up the conversations with the fresh produce industry – even if eventually it comes to nothing with most people, we want them to be aware of what we are doing. For smaller companies, it’s also a really good solution if you’re looking to increase your corporate social responsibility (CSR) impact, and to align yourself with the CSR effort of all the big brands that are already involved.”
Seemingly small psychological impacts such as being able to buy M&S food for Christmas this are a crucially important part of the process as Community Shop’s long-term goal is to empower its members to improve their life prospects and reduce their dependency on organisations like themselves.
Community Shop believes that ‘people do best when they get a hand up, not a hand out’ and its bespoke support to its membership is designed to give them the skill, will and confidence to eventually rip up their membership card and succeed.
“The last thing we want is for members to feel like they are the recipients of charity,” says Widdison. “Most if not all of them have been involved with other organisations in the area in the past and have not always had the best experience. No one ever asks them about what they want and what their dreams are. But that’s our focus; we engage with them as a team, we provide them with mentors and the aim is that after six months they will happily hand their card back and be in a better position to move forward with their lives.”
The Success Plan that is in place for any member who chooses to enrol, is a process of “self actualisation”, says Widdison. It begins with four weekly introductory sessions, which allows both mentors and shop staff who take part to get to know the members, as well as giving members the opportunity to reconnect with themselves, their hopes and needs.
After the introductory session, a series of skills workshops, business insight and peer mentor training provide members with the tools they need for an exit plan from Community Shop and to “continue on with their journey”, Widdison explains. “Anything we can do to support them, to get back into work or to regain their independence in some way, we will – we see the six-month membership as a ladder up to the next stage and then we want to see members transitioning out and be ready to move on. Of course, we don’t just kick them out though.”
On top of that, a cook club teaches members how to make their food go further, what they should have as store cupboard essentials and gives usage tips on some of the more unusual items that turn up on the shelves – such as fennel. Those tips are carried out in the popular café area, which is looked after by a full-time chef, Trisha, who creates huge platefuls of food every lunchtime for £1.50, always mindful of the need to serve up both meat and vegetarian options.
The entire support system of Community Shop is funded by the proceeds of the shop and the cafe, which of course relies heavily on its retail and supplier partners across the UK.
But, rolling right back to the start of the process, how does Community Shop first select its locations and then measure the eligibility of members? “We go on multiple indices of deprivation, including levels of income, access to employment, local amenities and so forth,” says Widdison. “We would only work in areas that fall into the bottom 5% based on those indices and West Norwood is comfortably within that. It is a catchment area rather than a postcode and we have simplified it slightly to include the main streets in West Norwood as it’s easier to explain that to people.”
To ‘qualify’, members need to be on some form of means-tested benefit (working tax credits, low income allowance, job seekers, pension credit etc…) and a huge amount of work was put into community engagement – talking to residents through other organisations such as churches, schools, job centres, health and leisure centres and of course charities.
The danger of being seen as a threat to any of these organisations was quickly averted, says Widdison. “We’re so unique that, as soon as we were able to engage and explain ourselves, nobody thought we were treading on their toes. Our model means that all the product we sell through the shops covers the rent and additional services we provide, so we are not competing for funding streams. Because of that we were welcomed in the area. I think the local food bank probably had some concerns at first, but once they realised how different we are, they soon became a great partner. While they are there to focus on the emergency help people need, we are more focused on long-term support and I think we have freed some of their time up.”
Membership is capped at 750 people, who on average will have a family of 4 at home. “We have 400 members at the moment,” Widdison says. “If I’m honest, I thought we might have people knocking the door down as soon as we started, but that hasn’t quite happened. In London, so many things are opening all the time that it takes more time to make an impact. We are a little hidden away too, but what we’re finding is that as well as the referrals we are getting and the work we are doing to market ourselves, a lot of our membership is doing our recruitment for us. They are bowled over by what they have here and go and tell their neighbours and friends.”
Widdison says members use the store on average 1.5 times a week, but many know the staff by name, and are addressed by their own name in return. They receive personal texts to let them know when something they like has been delivered or warning them when the next delivery will be in so they don’t miss out. Just spending half an hour in the store was enough to see just how much of a community feel the approach of the staff has engendered.
And walking out through the car park with one member, knocked back by a stroke three years ago and unable to work since, it was clear how much the shop’s presence has changed her outlook on life.
Widdison says: “Access to our food and services allows people mental space away from poverty. Typically, we are selling at 70% below the RRP (recommended retail price) and those sort of savings allow members to eat properly and still have the flexibility to pay off debt, maybe even save some money. That stability can open them up to other things that they could never consider when they are dealing with abject poverty.”
The fresh produce left behind at the end of this year’s London Produce Show will once again be delivered to Community Shop and sold to its members.
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Alongside her job with Community Shop, Clara Widdison is studying for a food policy Masters at City University, and previously worked with the Peoples Supermarket and at an association for executive search consultants.
Her combined interest in food, retail, charity and events drew her eventually to her current role. “When I read about the project that had started in Goldthorpe in late 2013, I wrote to Sarah (Dunwell, director of social and environmental affairs at Company Shop) and asked whether there were plans to open stores in London – and if so, if I could help in any way,” says Widdison.
“At the time she said no, but that she’d let me know if there were. I offered to help out at the London Produce Show and bumped into Sarah there and reintroduced myself. They had just agreed to their plan for London so the timing was very opportune.”
To meet Clara and others in her team and discuss ways you can collaborate, sign up now to attend the show.
Watch a short film about Company Shop and Community Shop
See testimonials from multiple retailers involved in the scheme