The late-night sandwich run

Homeless people being given food

Shops throw away an estimated 1.6m tonnes of food every year. But more and more are thinking inventively about waste and distributing leftovers to those in need.

A shopping basket filled to the brim with sandwiches clatters along the uneven pavements of the alleyways and back streets of London's Covent Garden. Mark's trained eyes scan the doorways and cavities of the surrounding office blocks and theatres.

What other shops are doing

  • Tesco: Any waste is either re-used, recycled, or turned into energy, and they divert all their waste from landfill. They work with charity FareShare who distribute fit-for-purpose stock to those in need
  • Waitrose: Very small amount of food left over but also works with FareShare in same way. And 115 branches generate renewable energy from waste
  • Co-Op: Supports WRAP's "Love Food Hate Waste" campaign, which aims to raise awareness of the need to reduce food waste
  • Subway: Sandwiches are made to order, so has very little waste
  • Sainsburys: Minimise food waste through accurate forecasting and stock control. Donate to FareShare and food that can't be eaten is used to generate electricity through processes such as anaerobic digestion

He stops and points through the darkness to a figure curled up in a thin blue sleeping bag. Out of the basket he takes a couple of sandwiches. Careful not to wake the sleeping man, he gently places them by his feet. Returning to his basket, he continues into the night. This is the front line - grassroots social work.

Mark's basket is a welcome sight. He walks the streets handing out cups of tea, offering food and chatting with those preparing to bed down for another night in the open. People appear seemingly out of nowhere, grateful to receive what may be their only meal that day.

Chris Stanion has been homeless for eight years. In and out of hostels, he is now sleeping rough. He is offered a sandwich - Wiltshire cured ham on malted bread.

"That shops give away food at the end of the day is good because if it wasn't for these sandwiches lots would go hungry," he says, also clutching a warm cup of tea.

The food is donated by Pret A Manger, a food company selling high-end sandwiches and salads. What the homeless eat was on its shelves hours earlier. Like everyone else, Mark's regulars have their preferences.

"The homemade sandwiches are actually the best," says David, who has been homeless for "a while". "The Pret sandwiches are past their best by the time we get them. The fillings make the bread go soggy and they are kept too cold."

'Feel-good factor'

But the beautifully-packaged sandwiches do have some advantages over homemade ones.

"If we left the sandwiches we make next to the rough sleepers they would be destroyed by the elements before they could be eaten - and they would attract the rats," says Mark.

Joseph's story

Student

Moved to the UK from the Czech Republic and has been a resident at the Olallo Project hostel for four months, where he works in a laundry.

"I like the bacon sandwiches and the baguettes, and there is plenty, which is good.

"But I would rather have fish and chips"

He is a volunteer with the Simon Community, a registered charity providing aid to homeless people throughout central London.

Every week, he and his co-workers pound the pavements of central London and twice a week the Simon Community distributes sandwiches to more than 100 rough sleepers during their soup run.

"A familiar face is important," says Dave Clark, a trustee of the Simon Community. "The soup runs are a good way of keeping in touch on the streets, the food is a way to build up a relationship with these people."

About 98% of Pret's UK and global branches donate a total of 1.7m products to the homeless in some way.

It's not just about feeding them, says Mr Clark. "It's about showing these people a bit of common decency. That's why we like to give them a choice of sandwich instead of just dumping something on them."

The amount of food the company is able to donate varies. After a busy day some shops might not have any leftovers. And it's not just about feeding rough sleepers. The Olallo Project in London is a residential hostel and training centre for EU immigrants. Residents learn computer skills, English and interview techniques.

Before they started receiving sandwiches, the hostel was unable to provide lunch. Now staff can offer residents breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Nicky Fisher, head of sustainability for Pret, knows such initiatives are "good for the brand" and help to provide a feel-good factor for customers. They are also important in fulfilling the company's promise that its stock is always fresh.

The influential watchdog, the Sustainable Development Commission (SDC), estimated shops were throwing away 1.6m tonnes of food a year, so any waste-saving schemes are welcome. Many other firms are also thinking about how to avoid dumping their leftover food on to the mountains of landfill.

Tesco says it has implemented a very efficient ordering system to reduce waste, but what waste there is can be re-used, recycled, or turned into energy. Leftovers fit to eat are distributed to those in need by a charity called FareShare.

Waitrose also works with FareShare, says a spokesman, and 115 branches generate renewable energy from food waste.

Belt-tightening

The focus needs to be primarily on prevention of food being wasted in the first place, says the Waste and Resources Action Programme (Wrap), which helps UK businesses reduce their waste.

"There will however be instances where there is surplus food in the chain, at both manufacturers and retailers. It is much better that this food is redistributed rather than it ending up as waste."

What a waste

  • UK shops throw away 1.6m tonnes a year of food
  • Manufacturers waste 4.6m tonnes a year
  • Consumers waste 4.1m tonnes a year

Source: Tristram Stuart, author of Waste

The benefits are not just environmental; there are commercial considerations too. To be synonymous with helping the homeless is good for a company and strengthens a company's brand, says Jonathan Gabay, of Brand Forensics. The "low-waste" message will also chime with customers in the present period of national belt-tightening.

"Corporate social responsibility has for the last five years, at least, been a key asset for any major brand. Anything that they can give back to the local community is part of that CSR planning.

"And because we are living in an austere society now, I can see why brands want to say to the customers: 'We are not wasting anything. We're giving these sandwiches to people that need it'.

"Maybe they've been doing it for a long time and in the past just been getting on with it, but now people might be looking at sandwiches left on the shelf and thinking 'where is it going?'"

Below is a selection of your comments.

This is an interesting article to read. However what a shame that it's not acknowledged that the Salvation Army have been doing this since its inception. They are out most nights throughout the year, across the country bringing food, drink, blankets etc to the homeless. Wouldn't it be good if all the supermarkets could liaise with their local Salvation Army churches so the food can be distributed to the most needy and is done so through an organisation that truly understands the needs of the homeless.

Jason Wells, High Wycombe UK

Well done to Pret's and others like them. Should the Government not be stepping in and making it mandatory for the many major chains of sandwich bars to do likewise. Yes there will be distribution issues but surely this is better for everyone compared to the alternative of landfill?

Mel, London

I think this programme is great for the homeless and great for preventing waste, but it's only saving the 1.6m tonnes that the shops throw out. What about the 4.1m tonnes that consumers throw out? I know that I would throw out far less food if the supermarkets sold all their fruit and veg by weight, rather than in over-sized packages, only suitable for large families. Perhaps someone could come up with a programme where I could donate the other three quarters of a bag of beansprouts to the homeless after I make a stir-fry.

Emily, Edinburgh

I had thought there were issues with shops distributing leftovers in this way because of idiotic legal cases brought against them when someone becomes ill - whether or not provably through consumption of the leftover food. Very glad several places keep up the practice - what do they do / what rules do they have in place that lift the worry of being sued for food poisoning (even if the illness was nothing to do with the food)?

Holly , London

That's brilliant and the volunteers work so hard. What's with complaining about soggy sandwiches? They are free after all!

Jane, UK

Very interesting and brings back memories when I was homeless as a teenager. The Salvation Army took me in and it was the local Boots that would give them the end of day sandwiches for us to eat and hand out to those unfortunate not to be in the local hostel. It's a great un-noticed service that i think the larger supermarkets should provide more. Beyond that, perhaps we should be using the money gained from the recent announcement to cut benefit fraud in building state-run hostels to assist beyond these kind not-for-profit charities.

Craig, Reading

I use to work for an outdoor sports retailer, at the end of every month we would have boxes of damaged coats and sleeping bags, where the items would be ripped or a zip not working. We were told that we had to shred them up into bits and then chuck them in the bin. When I asked if we could give them out to the needy I was told they might bring them back pretending to be a customer and try to claim a refund!

Andrew, Oxford

Last year I bought a ciabatta from a service station coffee shop shortly before it closed. In chatting to the staff I learned that they *have* to throw away their left over food because the service station chain will not permit them to redistribute it to the local needy.

S, Birmingham

I am working for the biggest international coffee company in UK. We are wasting a lot of sandwiches and other food daily and we are banned from donating it to homeless. We are also told to remove sandwiches from packaging and waste them together with other rubbish to prevent homeless to go through our bin bags left on the street to be collected by waste collection services. In my opinion it is disgrace for the company which advertise itself as socially responsible. I don't understand why other companies like Pret-a -Monger can donate food but we cannot. Donating food to homeless is classified as gross misconduct and can result in being fired!

Alex, London

As a naive employee of a well-known shop I took it upon myself to give the "use by that date" sandwiches to the local night shelter. Several of the residents actually came to the store to thank me. One week later the area manager came from Nottingham and gave me a disiplinary warning. I was told to dispose of the unsold food that could have been eaten each day. I felt guilty until I found honest employment.

Michael, Norfolk

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