Susan Sheehan: Doing good things with surplus food

Susan Sheehan
Senior Policy Officer, Lambeth Council

It is incredibly ironic that millions of tonnes of food is wasted every year, and yet the emergence of food banks in this country has demonstrated that many people do not have access to the food they need. This irony has been of concern to us in Lambeth, particularly in the last two years since we started to map the complexity of issues around food and build a partnership of organisations that were working with food (Lambeth Food Partnership Together we have drawn up a food strategy and instead of just looking at food poverty, or just looking at food waste from a municipal waste authority point of view, i.e. as separate issues, this allowed us to see that the problem (food waste), was very much the solution (to food poverty).

The Greater London Authority (GLA), which has a Food Board chaired by former Fleet Street editor Rosie Boycott, had also been thinking along the same lines. They have been watching the emergency of a new social enterprise, called Community Shops, that has set up a pilot store in Goldthorpe, near Barnsley, south Yorkshire. It is run by Company Shops, a factory shop organisation, which already takes surplus food and redistributes it through factory shops, for factory workers to buy food from. They recognised that there was still surplus food available, so decided to set up a corporate social responsibility arm, called Community Shops, that would give access to this food to those on a low income.

The GLA introduced Lambeth to the concept at a round table on Food Poverty chaired by London Member Fiona Twycross. Her report ‘A Zero Hunger City – Tackling Food Poverty in London’, called on the GLA to take a strategic approach to food poverty, otherwise food banks risked being overwhelmed in the near future. The GLA decided to bring Community Shops to London and made available some funding for the organisation to set up seven shops in London. To do this they would need to work with local authorities, and as we were at the table, we took steps to develop a partnership with the GLA and make sure that one of those shops would be in Lambeth for the  benefit of our food poor citizens.

we recognise that this is a piece of work that has come about because of good partnership working

The first Community Shop in London was opened this week in West Norwood, in the borough of Lambeth. Community Shops’ business model is that it should be a self-sustaining social enterprise. It buys food from the factories and sells it, and piggybacks on the Company Shops existing distribution system. Any profit it makes goes into running a training programme for members that guarantees a job interview at the end. Membership is limited to 750 at any one time. For the business model to work, however, it does require help from local authorities to find and often provide premises. In this case Lambeth made available a now disused building that once housed offices and showers for refuse workers. We looked at numerous other properties in Lambeth but we could not make the model work using premises that charge full market rent.

As we celebrate the opening of the shop this week, and benefit from the huge amount of press coverage there has been, we recognise that this is a piece of work that has come about because of good partnership working. We focused on the big picture and were able to align resources to make something really good happen. Local authorities are limited by reduced budgets but this kind of partnership and ‘big picture’ thinking offers a way to deliver good outcomes for our residents.

Susan Sheehan is a Senior Policy Officer at Lambeth Council. You can follow her on Twitter at @GreenCChampion