by Aoibheann O’Brien, co-founder and interim CEO
It has been 10 years since FoodCloud and Tesco teamed up to fight food waste. In that time, the partnership has saved millions of meals, helped thousands of charities and transformed the conversation around store level surplus.
It was early 2013 when Iseult and I walked up to the then CSR manager of Tesco Ireland and pitched our ‘moon shot’ idea to redistribute store level surplus food at scale to local charities using an app.
We had already begun early trials of the mobile app we’d developed as students in 2012. The app allowed food businesses with extra food at the end of the day to notify local charities. We’d teamed up successfully with a farmers’ market in Dublin (Honest2Goodness Farmers Market) and experimented with trials at small cafes and bakeries.
We knew that retail would be a key place to access large volumes of surplus food, consistently. Their scale would mean we could reach a lot of charities, and the type of food that becomes surplus at their stores is in line with what the charities were telling us they were interested in..
At the time there was no large-scale food redistribution framework in Ireland, and each conversation we had was thwarted by concerns around food safety, traceability and ensuring that no surplus would be sold on, rather than end up with charities.
Until that is, we pitched our proposal to Tesco.
We work closely with Lorraine Shiels, the now head of CSR at Tesco Ireland. I caught up with Lorraine recently to look back on the last decade, and she said frankly, “It was a leap of faith. We’re a very insights-driven business and we usually review things a lot before we try something new.” In October of 2013, Tesco took that leap with a one-store trial at the Tesco Express on Talbot Street, smack bang in the middle of Dublin. Then store manager Alan Coates said it felt like a “no brainer” to both him and his team. Not only because of the amount of good food going to waste at the end of each day but also because the inner-city convenience store was seeing first-hand the impact of poverty on the community around it.
There were teething problems of course. For starters, the app, which we now call Foodiverse, in its earliest iteration lacked a little user-friendliness and had to be accessed using the team’s personal smartphones in stores. There were also some tweaks to what surplus could and should be donated as some charities lacked the capacity to store chilled food.
We learnt rapidly what would and wouldn’t work. For instance, we quickly switched from a first come, first served model for charities, to introducing schedules, assigning each collection night to a particular charity to ensure there was greater consistency for the store and the charities could line up volunteers.
The trial was a success, and it was expanded to several larger format stores across the country. Then, in July 2014, Tesco Ireland announced it would roll out the partnership nationally, to around 140 stores. And so, Tesco became our first national retail partner.
Expansion to the UK
Before the national rollout in Ireland could even be completed, a serendipitous conversation catapulted the partnership to the next level.
On a visit to Ireland in December 2014, newly appointed Tesco Group CEO Dave Lewis happened to strike up a conversation with a Dublin store manager who enthusiastically described the success of the ongoing FoodCloud initiative in Ireland.
Lewis was so impressed that he asked us whether we could scale up across the whole of the UK.
The plan was that Tesco would provide the stores and surplus, FareShare (the national UK food redistribution organisation) would provide the connections to local charities, and FoodCloud would handle the tech that connected the two.
Our tech team worked with Tesco’s tech team to integrate the system into handheld devices used by Tesco staff as they carried out tasks.
As Tesco, FareShare and FoodCloud rolled out the initiative to 11 more stores over the following six months, spanning major cities such as Glasgow, Belfast and Liverpool, the learning curve continued. It was very exciting for Iseult and myself, manning the phones ourselves, watching the level of donations rapidly increase.
Solving any small problems as we went – and at pace - the UK trial quickly expanded with hundreds of new stores brought on some weeks as the rollout gained momentum.
By late 2016, the scheme was up and running in 800 Tesco stores. By the end of 2017 it was in 3,000+ stores, with some 5,000 local charities and causes benefiting from the surplus food.
Later, in expanding to Tesco’s Central European business too, FoodCloud once again adapted its technology to reflect local customs and compliance requirements.
Creating Community Champions to connect stores and charities
Tesco Ireland wisely created the role of ‘Community Champion’ in 2015 to act as a point of contact between its stores and the charities it was supporting with food surplus. This is one of the critical steps Tesco took to ensure its teams are fully engaged with the initiative. One of those champions is Aoife Dilworth. Like her colleagues, she is passionate about supporting a wide variety of local community causes, many of which she enjoys a direct relationship with, in order to understand their needs. “The recipients vary so much,” she explained recently. “It could be a Meals on Wheels service, or support for retired veterans. It's so far reaching and that's what's really amazing.”
Particularly in the early days of the initiative, Community Champions like Aoife also played a crucial role in educating colleagues on not only the ‘how’s’, but the ‘why’s.’ Aoife reminded me that, “We explained that if there's one smashed egg in a tray of 12 then take it out, and the rest the charity will scramble in the morning. Or if the outer leaves of a cabbage look a bit worse for wear then take them off and save the rest. ”
Today, Tesco directly supports more than 350 community and voluntary organisations (CVOs) around Ireland on an ongoing basis. Our most recent survey found that 75% of our CVO partners are experiencing an increase in demand for food, so that support is more crucial than ever. Further, we know that food provision is about ‘more than food’, it’s a way for CVOs to connect with vulnerable people in our society, offer them other services and build resilience in communities.
Perfecting – and personalising - the process
Despite its rapid success, both the processes and technology behind the FoodCloud and Tesco partnership are always being tweaked and refined to improve their effectiveness.
Last year, for example, FoodCloud has been developing a new functionality on the platform, allowing for multiple collectors at one store. Currently in trials, the “multi-collector” tool can split donations between different charities, and avoid any good food being left behind. It’s just one example of how the partnership is always evolving and improving to capture the highest amount of surplus possible.
Paving the way to save surplus
A decade after it first kicked off in that small Dublin store, the impact of the Tesco and FoodCloud partnership has grown exponentially.
At Tesco Ireland, the equivalent of almost 20 million meals have been donated via the partnership. Over the last decade, that leap of faith has rescued 7,900 tonnes of surplus food.
Even during the challenges of Covid-19, when thousands of charities were forced to close overnight just as demand for surplus food intensified, the processes put in place and the level of passion and engagement from stores meant that donations didn’t dip, Lorraine recalled, “What we needed to do was make sure that, regardless of how the business was being impacted, we still went through that process to make sure when there was perfectly edible surplus we were maximising it as much as we could.”
In 2014 Tesco also provided significant financial support in the set up of the FoodCloud Hubs, a network of three warehouses in Dublin, Galway and Cork where we take large volumes of surplus food from across the supply chain and provide to charities from there. The Hubs now work with over 200 food companies across Ireland to rescue surplus food from farm, manufacturing and distribution - with the credibility and support of the Tesco brand, suppliers were more encouraged to get on board with what was a very fledgling organisation.
True leadership inspires others to get involved; the shift in the last decade has been incredible. The decision by Tesco to take that first step in 2013, has paved a clearer route for other retailers to redistribute their own store level surplus. FoodCloud now works with all the major supermarkets in Ireland and several in the UK, as well as Tesco, together with food service businesses. Now nearly all major grocers in the UK and Ireland have some model of store-level food redistribution in place, not least as they strive toward the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 12.3 – to halve global food waste at retail and consumer levels by 2030.
Where once throwing edible food in the bin was merely an ethical issue, now it is an environmental one too. Fortunately, there is increasing awareness of how important it is to reduce food waste to tackle greenhouse gas emissions and protect the planet in support of a more sustainable food system. For me, whether it’s at retail, food service, or farm gate, the key is to put the systems in place that make redistribution convenient and scalable, and then communicate the power of this solution to have a positive impact for our communities and on emissions avoided or saved.
The first question used to be, where is the liability on this? Now the first question is, how does it work and how much can you take?