Community supermarkets could provide a more sustainable way to help families out of food poverty
The cost of living crisis has found its most troubling expression in the rise of food bank users. For many people visiting a food bank is tantamount to losing their independence and can be an upsetting experience.
Furthermore, food banks can only do so much – the majority require users to be referred by a GP, job centre or other agency that can issue clients with three single-use vouchers a year. Each voucher provides three days of food – so that’s nine days of guaranteed food per year.
Think tank Demos have today published research into what might be a sustainable alternative: the community supermarket. Found more commonly in the US, Australia and Europe, community supermarkets sell food at below market prices with the explicit social aim of tackling food poverty and its effects (malnutrition, social isolation). They are distinguished from food banks by the fact that they sell groceries rather than prepared meals, and the food is not provided for free.
Demos points out that families turn to food banks when they reach crisis point, and so the work of food banks, while admirable, is to help families ‘subsist’ rather than sustain themselves. The report suggests four models of community supermarket which could be used to address food poverty in a more long-term way:
- Buying clubs – With this model, individual members select from a range of available products, and then orders are placed collectively with a wholesaler. Produce is delivered in bulk and sorted and distributed between members. This means that members can buy at wholesale prices, as well as saving costs associated with premises and storage; this model effectively cuts out the middle man.
- Box schemes – This is another form of collective purchase, where members pay a set price for a box of produce which is delivered either weekly or monthly. Emphasis in this model is placed on locally and ethically sourced produce that encourages people to eat more healthily at the same time as relieving financial pressures.
- Food cooperatives – These may be member owned or worker owned, and usually require members to invest some time in helping to run them. Many of these stores require an upfront investment from members which is then used to deliver bulk, wholesale orders. Again emphasis is placed on small, local suppliers.
- Excess stock – This is where unsold or unusable food from all levels of the supply chain is redistributed. This model usually requires clients to meet an eligibility criteria ie. by providing evidence of low income. Demos suggests that excess stock schemes are more likely to be reliant on external funding, and that it is common for their users to have access to other kinds of support including social care and CV-writing classes.
Ambitiously, the report recommends that the government halve the number of food banks by 2020 and help existing providers to launch community supermarket endeavours.
Although coalition policies including welfare reform have had an undeniable effect on levels of food poverty in the UK, Demos point out that the demand for affordable food is not a ‘phenomenon’ of the post-recession period. Even when the economy has recovered, community supermarkets could provide valuable support for families at risk of unemployment or social isolation.
Demos believes that entering the age of the community supermarket could mean better community cohesion, a dramatic reduction in food waste, and healthier lifestyles for the UK’s most vulnerable people.
Ruby Stockham is a staff writer at Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter