Food justice and social supermarkets are two concepts, amongst others, that have grown in prominence over the last few years. Debates, discourses and awareness have also developed, as we navigate how to feed a largely growing population with finite resources.

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Image One: a social supermarket

Defining food justice is a complex task, though there is a broad consensus of what it includes and represents. The term has been highlighted as a discourse among several others all exploring and championing different approaches and means to solving food inequality. This is a wide breadth of discourses, for example food sovereignty or food security, at odds with each other over how to define the problem, what it means and what’s caused it. Below are just some visual examples of the disparity.

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Images 2-4: What is food justice?

It is hard to find much clarity in defining food justice, with many different perspectives at play. There are some arguments that the limitations of definition would be prohibitive in discouraging certain behaviours or approaches, yet equally without a rigid term in place there is a risk of failing to be able to attribute any meaning. It could perhaps also add greater accountability from a wide range of actors in this field. What’s become clear is food justice seems greatly dependent on context, and although it seems anchored in the Western hemisphere (largely with American roots) the term and its users are still exploring how it fits into all the contexts and fields that food encompasses. Regardless of these ambiguities, it remains an important and key term.

For this blog, I’m going to use Holt-Gimenez’s outlining of the concept, a chapter found in ‘Cultivating Food Justice’. It’s useful because it provides some distinction from other discourses but also remains relatively broad. She focuses on locally and sustainably produced food, often as an investment in underserved communities and where projects or programmes are small scale. With this in mind, I want to explore the impact that grass roots food justice is having. It’s significant to remember that food justice comes in all shapes and sizes, but for this blog I’m focusing specifically on social supermarkets. Again there is no surprise I suppose these too have a slippery definition that’s tricky to unpick, but for these purposes they are shops that ‘sell low cost food (typically surplus food from organisations or supermarkets) to people facing food poverty’.

Why social supermarkets?

  • Food poverty and inequality is increasing. This has recently been coupled with rising political disillusion, more awareness and vocal critique of the state and institutions alongside contentious issues like Brexit and it’s impact on food (take Marmite-gate) as well as the release of I Daniel Blake which humanely and startlingly portrayed the reality of food poverty for many families.
  • Food waste: Outrage about the planet’s precious and finite resources being wasted is growing. Indeed, in 2015 the UK topped the food waste chart in the EU with 14 tonnes wasted.
  • Fashion: This is cynical but something I don’t think can go unnoticed. It’s very fashionable to set up and be part of a social supermarket scheme and tackle food problems in your area this way. They are an attractive and stylish ‘cause’ to advocate.

Images 5-6: The UK’s shocking food waste in 2015 and ‘I Daniel Blake’ released in 2016

The impact social supermarkets have had on society and communities is widely recognised and considered an important shift in the how grassroots approaches manifest themselves. However, there are also flaws in social supermarkets and other programs or approaches of food justice that I want to consider:

  • Short-term: Social super markets and the food justice discourse appears to solve the immediate problems. The reluctance to engage with institutions or the state prevents structural change from happening. In short, the long-term problems and root of these inequalities and challenges continues to exist.

Having briefly raised these issues it is also important to explore the way forward, and the role food justice or social supermarkets can have, and how we can fill the gaps that exist.

  • Cursory change: We need to better understand the deep, significant and structural change social supermarkets are having. If there is little evidence, perhaps we should divert resources to what can help us create long-term development. This doesn’t mean we should stop acknowledging the impact social supermarkets are having, but by recognising they are a hasty remedy to a problem that won’t go away it gives us the space to be more realistic and think about how we can create deep seated change.
  • Partnership: This field is a diverse web of different actors and organisations all at different levels, different roles and with different interests. It’s important that we work with all involved in order to have rooted and meaningful impact. This partnership needs to involve and work within marginalised community groups and ethnic minorities as well as those that govern and set policy. It’s a big ask, but important.
  • Vision: This sounds naff but I do think it’s significant. What’s struck me more than anything is the different type of discourses, ideas and values in what we need to solve food inequality. Even agreeing on the problem, is a task that exposes disparity. In order to achieve anything meaningful or structurally different there needs to be clear image of what is trying to be achieved. Perhaps this brings me back to the beginning of this blog and how we define food justice and the very challenges and issues around food. With such poor clarity, there is no central vision.

I don’t want to lessen the important work organisations like social supermarkets do, and the significance of food justice in our society, however I do think it’s now time to consider long-term solutions to the problems we are seeing and start crafting a clear image of what this might look like. It’s not just what’s fashionable but actually what’s best.

Image 7: the fist of solidarity, yet is the case in reality?

I appreciate this is a fairly utopic and idyllic image of what needs to happen, I use ‘we’ as though we are a collective group anchored together. The reality is of course, much different.