Covid-19 hit the UK in early March, setting off a trend of panic-buying among the public, which soon led to a scarcity of many food items. In parallel, public services staff who were continuing to work during this period, providing essential support in hospitals, schools, social care and charities, struggled to find time to shop for groceries and buy the goods they need before they flew off the shelves.
While many supermarkets have rolled out opening hours exclusively for frontline key workers and set aside provisions, food procurement organisation Foodbuy has taken this a step further by setting up a trio of “essential food” box projects - packages of nutritionally balanced foods to be distributed to the workers most in need.
The three project branches focus on preparing the essentials food box, repackaging and redistribution, and a box-on-demand service for charity partners that want to create packages themselves or request one-off donations. Foodbuy is the procurement business of Compass Group UK & Ireland, which is its parent company and largest client. Therefore, Foodbuy was well-positioned to initiate such an ambitious goal, with a wide network of clients within the hospitality, restaurant, education and healthcare sectors.
During its journey to mobilisation, the organisation has overcome issues in stock management, oversized catering supply sizes, demand forecasting, and limited sourcing time frames. As a result, Foodbuy has distributed 16,000 essential boxes to people in need.
Commercial Stock For Consumer Use
Two months ago, Foodbuy began its essential boxes project by using its large group purchasing network to source the required foods. The company worked predominantly with food and distribution company Brakes to source a range of products and packaging items, while Compass set up a distribution base at the Madejski stadium in Reading to pick and pack the boxes, before delivering them to areas of south-east England. Deliveries of the essentials boxes were also coordinated by Compass using Foodbuy’s distribution partners.
Jonathan Wright, head of supply chain development, who led on these projects, explains: “While most places were lacking food supplies, Foodbuy was sat on a substantial amount of stock that we weren't able to shift as a lot of hospitality sites and clients were closing, so we decided to start a project around essentials boxes where we would effectively use retail size or consumer-sized products that we could put into a box and hand out.”
Wright highlights that as the project developed, it was clear there was a lack of retail-sized products compared with the abundance of catering-sized supplies, so the team created a secondary project to repack and redistribute the items into sizes more suitable for consumer use. They worked closely with the Foodbuy Health and Safety in the Environment (HSE) team to create a guide to safely and securely resize the catering packs without incurring issues over allergens, nutrition and labelling information.
Wright says: “That was our biggest challenge, but we created a guide and product lists that were changed from time to time as better availability of products came in.”
This led to the third project arm, an alternative box where Foodbuy sourced specific food products as requested by charities, which were delivered directly to the charities for them to pack and distribute.
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Repacking and Labelling Requirements
The procurement, HSE and supplier assurance teams set about creating a guide on how to decant the catering packs into consumer sizes. For this, they identified how to recount goods, optimal portion sizes such as dividing 1kg packs into 500g ones, the materials required, and the necessary health and safety conditions to meet food safety specifications.
Wright says: “We worked with our chef team to work out what the portion sizes should be, broadly based on retail pack sizes, and then we worked with the vendor assurance team to split them out into individual pack sizes.
“We sourced more repackaging materials, which is not something we would typically have procured, so there were side projects to resolve that, such as zip-lock bags or cardboard boxes.”
Next, a process was created to ensure the new packs displayed legally correct labels with allergen and nutritional information. This was achieved by requesting the local site to print the information, according to the details on the larger packs, at the point of order. According to Wright, bringing the teams together and producing this guide was the key to the success of the projects.
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Initially, the essential’s boxes were mainly going to clients of Compass, which set a target to distribute 10,000 boxes. However, as the food boxes gained popularity and recognition among charities and hospitals in key sectors, many communal charities or community buyers made specific requests for donations as one-off provisions or continued supply. This increased demand and contributed to the development of the third project arm around customised food supply boxes.
For instance, 500 boxes were donated to the Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity, as well as 500 more to the ABF The Soldiers’ Charity. Donations were also provided to hospital charities, such as UK children’s hospice Together for Short Lives, which was given 1,500 boxes to be distributed across 19 hospices in the UK. Foodbuy also created special treat boxes for seasonal occasions to boost the spirits of key workers, including at Easter when 50,000 chocolate eggs were given out and 100 boxes were given to the RAF Benevolent Fund, a charity supported by Compass Group. The Fund added party hats, mini flags, napkins and chocolates to their boxes to celebrate the anniversary of the end of WWII.
Wright highlights that this support has been particularly important because “many charitable organisations aren't necessarily getting the funding or support that they were before the pandemic”.
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