The social supermarket emerged in the UK in 2013 with the dual aim of reducing food poverty and food waste. A social supermarket is essentially a shop which stocks surplus food from food retailers at a significantly lower percentage (70%) than the original retail price . Therefore, these stores aim to tackle both food waste, attributed to the food manufacturing and retail sectors, and reduce food poverty in the UK by specifically targeting low-income individuals. Social supermarkets are a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, the first only being opened in 2013. However, in the rest of Europe, social supermarkets have been running since the 1980’s, with France alone containing around 500 such stores.
Food waste in the UK
As most post-farm waste is attributed to household waste (7.3Mt, equivalent to 71%), it is not surprising that campaigns to tackle waste have concentrated on this specific sector. However, the manufacturing and retail sectors also contribute to a significant proportion of waste. The combined waste of the retail and manufacturing sector was a total of 1.9 million tonnes, of which an estimated 1.1 million (56%) was deemed avoidable as this apparent ‘waste’ was suitable for consumption. However, only a total of 47,000t of surplus food was redistributed in 2015. Therefore, the potential redistribution of food from the retail and manufacturing sector is significantly higher than is currently being utilised. This means that the potential for social supermarkets to contribute to reducing waste in the UK is significant, as well as the viability of the stores in the UK, as they rely on the availability of surplus, consumable to food to exist.
Extent of food poverty/ insecurity in the UK
Recent data published by the UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) indicates that an estimated 8.4 million people in the UK were food insecure in 2014.Of the 1000 participants interviewed in the study, 15% of people over 15 years old were classified as being food insecure and 4.5% were classified as being severely food insecure.
Social supermarkets as a long-term solution to food poverty?
In contrast to food banks, which are intended to be for short term use, social supermarkets have the potential to be long term solutions to food poverty. This is as they depend upon the redistribution of surplus food from retailers and manufacturers, of which there is an estimated annual amount of 1.1 million tonnes per annum in the UK.. Also, unlike discount stores, there is a capped number of ‘members’ allowed to use the store to ensure that only those most likely to suffer food poverty are permitted to use the store. The criteria for becoming a member is receipt of some form of income benefit (Please see editorial note below as this statement is made based on an erroneous report from the Financial Times).
In contrast to food banks, one of the major benefits of social supermarkets is that the food available from the shop can be chosen and bought, as opposed to receiving a donation of fixed food. Although items from a social supermarket must be paid for, the cost of items is significantly less than a typical supermarket- usually 70% less than the original retail value. With food banks, emergency food parcels only contain non-perishable foods and thus don’t contain fresh fruit and vegetables. In contrast, social supermarkets can stock fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
However, as the food provided in social supermarkets is surplus from producers and retailers, there is limited choice in comparison to a typical supermarket and the availability of specific stock items may be unstable (not consistently available from week to week) . Also, if the number of social supermarkets was to increase in the UK to levels such as those in Austria, which has around 8 social supermarkets in every major city and represents a 1.5% national share of all supermarkets, this may become unsustainable . This is as all social supermarkets in the same local areas compete for the same limited amount of surplus produce from local producers and retailers. In Austria, this led to some social supermarkets closing down as they could not provide a minimum amount of regular produce in their stores .
However, if social supermarkets are to become an extensive form of long-term food poverty alleviation, they need to become more inclusive. The issue raised in the FT is that there is exclusivity of users, as the markets only allow a capped number of members to use the store, based on the sole criteria of receiving welfare benefits. This means that individuals or households who don’t receive benefits but do suffer food poverty/insecurity, such as those with low-income employment, are excluded from using the supermarkets.
Editor’s note: The Community Shop’s impact report says that 22% of members are in work and a further 22% are retired–Community Shop feel there is a misrepresentation in the FT article cited. Community Shop target areas identified as highly deprived but do not require participants to be benefits recipients. Likewise the My Local Pantry model of Social Supermarkets running in the UK operate on an area based model and receipt of unemployment benefit is no a precondition to membership, residential area is however. Some Real Junk Food Projects also offer a surplus food supermarket model, these operate on a pay as you feel basis and are open to anyone. There are also some smaller independent organisations operating similar models using surplus food–the criteria that these organisations use varies). While the conclusion is often drawn that those who are food insecure, but not on benefits will not be able to access this food, this is an overgeneralisation and in some instances a misrepresentation of how specific organisations operate. Finally, as an additional note, while the shorthand of “on benefits” is often used by commentators and the general public to describe those who are unemployed, benefits reform and the transition to Universal Credit that is currently ongoing will mean the line between those “on benefits” and those who are not will become much less clear as job seekers allowance is being rolled into a the Universal Credit package, which will also include benefits paid to those who are in employment and in some instances those who are on PIPs.
Please note that this is student work and is based on finding source material from existing research as per the assessment guidelines. It is reasonable that the student who is not an expert in this area would presume that reputable newspapers would provide factually correct information and would offer an analysis or interpretation based on that. Normally as editor I would not change or add to the text of a student blog. I have been asked to make this correction by the organisations who offer a social supermarket model in the UK in order to set the record straight. The comments are also backed up by my own independent research on surplus food social distribution organisations.
In conclusion, the potential of social supermarkets for long term food poverty alleviation is significant as they allow people suffering food poverty to choose their food preferences, in contrast to food banks, and pay a much more affordable price for items compared to a traditional supermarket. Ultimately, the long-term food security potential of the social supermarket depends on the stores ability to ensure a relatively stable supply of regular produce at consistent reduced prices. The membership aspect of the stores is also useful as it targets those whom face a higher likelihood of suffering food poverty (those receiving benefits), and also ensure that the limited stock is not over demanded. However, this also means that others who suffer food poverty, but don’t receive benefits, are excluded from using the markets. Like food banks, social supermarkets are also part of civil society as they are social enterprises, and the danger here is that they can relinquish the responsibility of ending food poverty from governments.
 Christina Holweg, Eva Lienbacher & Walter Zinn (2010) Social Supermarkets-a New Challenge in Supply Chain Management and Sustainability, Supply Chain Forum: An International Journal, 11:4, 50-58