Kids Outside

Kids in pic L-R are: Eliot Buckland, 13, Tom Conradi, 13, Seb Vickerman, 12, James Hogg, 13, Ollie Thomas, 12, Daniel Winter, 14, Curran Harper, 14 and Alfie Poynter, 13.

It’s an idea so startlingly simple, you can’t believe no-one came up with sooner. With supermarkets increasingly under fire for bogof promotions that generate thousands of tonnes of food waste every year, why not add a button to their websites that allows online shoppers to donate the ‘one free’ items to food banks with a single click? And if they just feel like donating something that isn’t on promotion, they can do that as well.

The customer gets a warm glow, having made a hassle-free donation that, as half a bogof, didn’t even cost them anything. And the supermarket still gets its money because the items are being bought and paid for in the usual way. It’s a win-win for everyone. Better still, the supermarkets have become part of the solution, rather than the problem. So why isn’t a single one of them offering the option?

Firstly, the fiendishly simple online donation plan outlined above is, at present, just a concept. The button doesn’t exist. And secondly, the idea isn’t the result of a brainstorming session by the marketing department of a major multiple - it was dreamed up by a bunch of 12 t0 14-year old schoolboys from Queen Elizabeth’s Hospital school in Bristol who came up with the concept they christened SOGO (Shop Online Give Online) at the school’s Community Problem Solving (CPS) after-school club.

A Girl Called Jack says…

Jack Monroe

 Blogger turned Sainsbury’s ad star and bestselling cookbook author Jack Monroe says she has been lobbying the supermarkets for a similar scheme for months and thinks what the SOGO boys are doing is “absolutely brilliant”.

“The need is there, and it’s constant,” she says. “People go to food banks every week, so every week they need replenishment. Supermarkets are in a good position to help out and I really hope one of them puts together a plan to do it. Food banks are a shameful thing to have, but they are here to stay.”

Like the boys, Monroe says she also felt like she’d been patted on the head at first. “But I said, ‘I’m not going to stop talking about this.’ Even if you adopt a cynical business point of view it’s a win-win for the supermarkets. It’s part of their corporate social responsibility, but people are still buying the products. Whether they are buying them for their own cupboards or the food bank, it’s all additional money for the supermarkets.”

As for the trickier back end of the plan, Monroe accepts that the logistics might take a while. “But if we get one to take the lead, as soon as it starts to make them money, or gets them good PR, all the others will leap in and follow suit. We just need one to do it,” she says.

In March 2013, the club decided its area of focus for the year should be food waste and the nation’s growing demand for food banks. There were few more pressing - and intractable - issues they could have decided to tackle. The Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest food bank network, says it fed 25,899 people in 2008. In 2012, that number had rocketed to 346,992. Last year, it fed 738,000 and it expects numbers to hit a million next year.

After kicking around a few ideas, the boys came up with a compelling proposition: why not allow online shoppers to donate to a food bank? They figured that once food bank orders had been placed, the supermarkets could collect the items on a pallet and drop it off to one of the many food bank drop-off points as part of their usual round of online deliveries. Having come up with a genuinely unique plan (no such scheme exists anywhere in the world), they were confident they were onto a winner.

Lukewarm reception

When they took the idea to the top five supermarkets however, the response wasn’t what they were hoping for. “Most of the replies have been quite patronising, along the lines of ‘it’s a lovely idea, we’ll think about it’,” says one member of the CPS club, Tom Conradi.

“They are quite automatic,” adds fellow student Dan Winter, at 14, one of the older members of the team. “‘We give a lot to charity. It’s a very good idea. We will pass it on.’ This has the potential to help hundreds of people, so to receive a stock reply is annoying.”

Another, Alfie Poynter, says that one supermarket suggested they “couldn’t be seen to be making money from people buying products to donate,” but questions the difference between this and when they have a drop-off event, where shoppers can buy items then leave them in a trolley in the foyer.

There is, however, one major difference. Filling up a food bank trolley, which the food bank then collects from the store, is, logistically, quite simple. Adding functionality to websites and siphoning items from hundreds of individual orders into a separate foodbank delivery is more complex. In short, the concept might be beautifully simple, but executing it is not.

“We are going to carry on until they say yes. We will keep on bombarding them with letters”

Eliot Buckland, 13

In fairness, everyone on the CPS team agrees. However, they also offer myriad reasons why supermarkets could, and should, try to make it work. “There are over 26,000 delivery vans in the UK,” says James Hogg. “On their regular routes they always pass food banks, so they can drop the donations off on a daily basis. Daily deliveries also means they can donate fresh food as well, which is what food banks really need more of. And it wouldn’t cost them any more money because it’s all paid for.”

Cheap solution

Even if it did cost money to implement, it would be worth it, says Ollie Thomas, one of the younger CPS members at just 12. “The supermarkets make millions of pounds. This isn’t going to make them bankrupt. Their shops aren’t going to start shutting if they start doing it.”

What the supermarkets say…

Supermarket Letters


The Grocer asked the supermarkets about the SOGO plan. Here is what they said:

Morrisons: Food banks offer a critical service and we work with a huge number of them through our stores’ community champions. A ‘donate’ button is a piece of functionality we could look at once we’ve rolled out more widely.

Waitrose: It is something we would consider as part of the evolution of our online offer and our ongoing work with food banks.

Tesco: We love the idea. The students are absolutely right that online customers should be able to support food banks, that’s why we promote links on our website through which customers can donate to food bank charities during their online shop. We have received their letter and will be getting in contact.

Sainsbury’s: It’s great the school are fighting hunger and tackling food waste. We support local charities through our Food Donation Partnership Scheme to send food to those who need it and many of our stores already work closely with food banks in their communities.

Asda: It seems like a lovely idea but currently we don’t have this function available on our website. That’s not to say we don’t support food banks and we’ve been supporting Fareshare for over 18 months.

He also points to other incentives. “If Tesco did it and Sainsbury’s didn’t, then, unless they are absolute Sainsbury’s die-hards, some of those shoppers could switch to Tesco. It’s like Fairtrade. It might be a little more expensive but it does an awful lot of good, so people switch to it.”

The team quizzed 100 people about their idea and all of those who shopped online said that they would be willing to make a donation. This feedback shows that customers like the idea, says Curran Harper, who also thinks that as soon as one supermarket goes for it, the rest will follow.

“Asda would be good because they are part of Walmart and it would be great if it caught on in America. We really want to see this go further. Food banks are huge in America but they have no online donation system either.”

Having said that, if he could pick one of the supermarkets to take the lead, it would be Tesco. “The bigger the company the better,” he explains. “Tesco have been quite responsive, so they would be the one we would like to go for it.”

In an attempt to persuade Tesco to explore the option further, some of the boys chained themselves to a shopping trolley outside the Tesco Extra in Bristol last week (before being moved on after 45 minutes).

Tesco tactics

They also started hatching plans to turn up at Tesco’s head office in Cheshunt to force “one of the bigwigs” to listen, but just before carrying out the Tesco Extra stunt, they received a letter from Tesco corporate responsibility manager Rebecca West.

“I would be more than happy to arrange a call so I can talk to you about how our plans for online donations are developing, and hear your ideas,” she wrote. “Then we can look at arranging a time for you to come and see us at Cheshunt.”

Tesco’s invitation, which the boys plan to accept, suggests it’s prepared to give their plan a fair hearing. And given the billions of pounds a year the top five invest in their online operations, not to mention the levels of food waste they generate, you have to think one retailer will at least investigate the option of offering consumers the chance to donate promotional goods to food banks - if only to get these pesky kids off their backs.

Because one thing’s for sure, the kids are not giving up. “We are going to carry on until they say yes,” vows Eliot Buckland. “We will keep on bombarding them with letters. We aren’t just going to go away. We just have to keep going.”

Seb Vickerman agrees. “We’ve seen the stories on the news. We have helped out at our local Trussell Trust food bank. We realise how desperate some people who use food banks are. When we there someone returned some pasta because they couldn’t afford to boil the water to cook it. People really do need these donations and if food banks don’t have food, there needs to be a solution. And we’ve come up with one.”

And with a little help from the supermarkets, it just might work.