Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Human Rights, North America

Serving the Homeless, One Falafel Sandwich at a Time

WASHINGTON, Aug 15 2011 - You may walk past a ‘Pret A Manger’ shop every day on your way to work. You might include Pret A Manger’s fresh sandwiches, wraps and salads in your regular rotation of lunch options. And you still might be wondering what the name of the shop actually means.

A selection of sandwiches donated by Pret A Manger, ready to be picked up at Thrive, DC. Credit: Hannah Traverse

A selection of sandwiches donated by Pret A Manger, ready to be picked up at Thrive, DC. Credit: Hannah Traverse

The name, which is French for “ready to eat”, is to the point; each Pret shop is stocked with boxed sandwiches and other lunchtime staples, all made fresh daily, all ready to go. Pret restaurants are not just ready to serve hungry patrons, however; the shops serve the community by donating all leftover food at the end of the day to a local homeless service provider. In the District, that service provider is Thrive, D.C., an organisation that supplies the disadvantaged with, among other things, a daily lunch programme supplemented by Pret merchandise.

“The question to us was, why waste perfectly good food when others are hungry?” said Sebastian Wright, head of Pret’s commercial operations. “Pret is a sensible brand, and it just makes sense to give our unsold food away…. We’re proud to do it, because we know it’s the right thing to do.”

Founded in London in 1986, Pret now operates more than 250 shops worldwide and is still privately owned. Most of the shops are in the United Kingdom, but with Pret’s move to the U.S. in 2000, Americans can now find shops in New York City, Chicago, and D.C. Pret’s relationship with Thrive began when the first D.C. shop opened in 2009; the shop was looking for a service provider to pair with, and Thrive was the perfect fit.

Pret’s belief that “food is built to taste, not to last” means that merchandise can only be sold the day it is made. According to Nathan Mishler, volunteer and community resources manager at Thrive, Pret has a policy to always close with a certain amount of merchandise on the shelves.

“The idea is that nobody wants to buy the last sandwich,” said Mishler.

This policy means that each Pret shop has at least 300 items left on the shelves at closing time. Seven days a week, Thrive volunteers or staff members pick up this merchandise from the three Pret locations in D.C. and bring it back to Thrive’s location in Columbia Heights. At 10:30 every morning, once Thrive’s hot breakfast programme is over, clients can pick from the available sandwiches, salads and wraps so they have a nutritious lunch to take with them.

“There sometimes are a lot of bagel shops and coffee shops that have extra food at the end of the day,” said Mishler. “That means a lot of bagels and a lot of pastries, which doesn’t always translate into a healthy meal. Pret provides a healthy option that’s readily available.”

Mishler said that Thrive clients have responded enthusiastically to the Pret offerings. Some were a little intimidated by the food at first, wondering what to make of a falafel sandwich or vegetarian wraps stuffed with hummus, cucumbers and feta. Now, according to Mishler, the clients are requesting these items.

“It’s sort of assumed that people won’t want to eat this kind of food, but it’s more like they’ve never been exposed to it before,” said Mishler. “Two months ago, we missed a pick-up – that’s when we really noticed how much our clients appreciated the food. They were asking, ‘Where are the falafel sandwiches?'”

Ronald Cole, a Thrive client, said that he usually chooses egg salad sandwiches or anything with ham and tomatoes. Cole was also excited to see that some Pret options are made with pesto, a food that he came to enjoy by trying a friend’s homemade version. Danny Summerlin, another Thrive client, said that he sincerely appreciates the freshness of Pret’s food.

“They make a good sandwich; I’ll give them that,” said Summerlin. “I like that it’s just made…. It’s all good.”

According to Wright, Pret’s 30 locations in New York City donated about 300,000 pounds of food last year to the organisation City Harvest. In Chicago, Pret stores are paired with The Greater Chicago Food Depository.

“As we continue to grow in the States, our partnerships and food donations with charities will also expand,” said Wright.

Pret shops in the U.K. also donate unsold food to the hungry. In London, Pret runs its own vans to deliver more than 12,000 meals across the city on a weekly basis.

U.K. shops also participate in Pret’s Simon Hargraves Apprenticeship scheme. This programme provides up to 30 jobs a year in Pret shops for the homeless, ex-offenders and the impoverished. The apprenticeship lasts three months, during which time the apprentice receives full employee benefits, has all job-related travel expenses covered and is given £100 to buy clothes. Even if a job is not available at the end of 3 months, the apprentice leaves with experience and a reference.

There is no word on whether Pret will begin a similar programme in the States, but the shop is dedicated to “working with long-term charity partners to ensure as much food as possible gets safely and reliably to the needy every night,” said Wright. Pret is expanding slowly and steadily, deciding not to franchise and not feeling the pressure of a publicly traded company. For the time being, however, Pret’s food donations are greatly appreciated.

“It’s been a growing, wonderful relationship,” said Alicia Horton, Thrive’s executive director. “Part of [Pret’s] philanthropic philosophy is to not waste food and to be a good community partner.”

*Published under an agreement with Street News Service.

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