Asda removes food bank donation points from UK stores

Asda removes food bank donation points from UK stores
The Guardian, by John Harris


Asda has removed permanent collection points for food banks from stores across the UK, in a move that has caused alarm among charities and the supermarket chain’s customers.


Following reports on social media that collection trolleys and boxes had disappeared from stores across Scotland, as well as in Hampshire, Lancashire, Norwich and Newcastle, the Guardian has established that Asda, which is owned by the US retail giant Walmart, has removed donation points from all of its UK stores.


Food bank points offer shoppers the chance to donate items they have bought in stores, as well as food brought from home; in some cases Asda’s contributions accounted for 15%-25% of a single charity’s donations.


Several charities told the Guardian they had been affected by Asda’s new policy, which was instituted in January, apparently unannounced.


In Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, the Gatehouse Food Bank had a permanent collection point in the town’s Asda from November 2012 until last week. The organisation’s chief executive, Amanda Bloomfield, said: “I was called to a meeting at the local Asda last Tuesday. I met the community representative and some management staff and was basically told that they had been to an Asda conference, and with immediate effect unmanned collections were no longer allowed.


“The food that had been donated up to that point was to be removed immediately, and there were to be no more collections. There was no reason given.”


Bloomfield said that about 15% of the food her organisation has distributed came from the Asda collection point.


“The management at Asda said there would now be a possibility of doing a food collection a couple of times a year in their main reception area,” she said. “That would mean we would have to find volunteers to man the operation, whereas at the moment, volunteers only need to collect the food once a week.”


In nearby Stowmarket, food bank manager Mike Smith said he had been called in to his local Asda for a meeting last week, and told that the store’s collection point would be removed, as a matter of national Asda policy. “This had come from the top,” he said. “The people I spoke to hadn’t been given any more information than that.” Smith said that about 25% of the food his organisation has distributed came from Asda customers.


In Frome, Somerset, the food bank run by the charity Fair Frome was notified of the end of in-store food collections last week. “The explanations we have been given are that customers want to know where their donations are going, and that there has been shoplifting from collection boxes,” said the charity’s chair of trustees, Bob Ashford. He put the proportion of food his charity had received from the Asda collections at 25%.


Food banks are not the only charities affected. In St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, representatives of a charity that helps stray cats called Cat Call were recently told that a box for donated cat food, as well as a collecting box for cash contributions, would have to be removed from a local Asda, along with several other collection points for local charities.


The Cat Call collection point had been in the store for about two years, and provided 85% of the charity’s cat food, distributed to people who temporarily provide a home for stray cats, but may not be able to afford to feed them.


“Asda haven’t told us why they’re doing this,” said Lorraine Shackle, one of the charity’s volunteers and trustees. She said she had been told that “the donation boxes all had to go, and there would be no more green tokens”. She said the charity had approached Tesco to provide another collection-point. “If we can’t get the food, we can’t feed the strays,” she said. “So it’s a worry.”


An Asda spokesperson confirmed the national change in policy, and told the Guardian that charities were still welcome in their stores, but “we just ask that volunteers are on hand to talk to customers and explain where their donations are going. We know this personal interaction helps to increase the amount of donations received”.


As part of Asda’s review of charity collections, they said an additional £2m would be “invested into local good causes” via the charitable Asda Foundation. Charities, said the spokesperson, could “apply for funding through the Asda Foundation by contacting their local community champion”.


In Frome, Ashford said he had received official word of the new policy and been provisionally offered “booked slots” for collections involving volunteers, but had serious concerns.


“I’ve written back to say that the current system works extremely well, because we have a consistent flow of food, so we can plan our deliveries and inputs,” he said. “There are difficulties with having to book slots: additional bureaucracy, finding volunteers. And my guess is that they’ll be infrequent, which will mean infrequent supplies.”


He said he welcomed Asda’s £2m increase in help to charities. “But it has to be has to be balanced by the impact the other changes are going to have on us, which is significant,” said Ashford. “Cash is always welcome, but food banks need food.”


Asda has also ended its green token scheme, under which the company donated to local charities according to how many shoppers placed plastic coins in collection boxes. In-store signs have claimed that “demand has dropped”. A company spokesperson said the green token scheme was being “changed and updated”, and that a replacement would be announced shortly.


Asda says the decision to change its arrangements for charities is based on a review of its community programme. A spokesperson told the Guardian the move was aimed at making Asda’s practices “fair and consistent for all the charities we support”.


The move comes as Asda deepens an ongoing cost-cutting drive in response to pressure from rival discount chains Aldi and Lidl. The company’s spokesperson denied the two were linked: “We’re investing an additional £2m, so it’s definitely not to do with cost-cutting,” she said. Asda’s latest results are due to be announced on Thursday.