Are ‘social supermarkets’ the solution to food waste AND food poverty?

I recently had the opportunity to visit the UK’s first social supermarket. The Community Shop in Goldthorpe (near Barnsley) offers a reasonable selection of food at deep discount – up to 70% of retail prices – to shoppers on the brink of food poverty. Families and individuals must register as a members and are offered an array of self help support in the cafe upstairs – debt management, career counseling, and kitchen skills. 

The food on Community Shop’s shelves is what is known as ‘residual food’ – perfectly good surplus food that has been rejected by the manufacturer or retailer for minor imperfections such as damaged labels, inconsistencies in product formula, or any other reason a retailer might reject a product for being imperfect. The amount of residual food in our food system is staggering. We visited the central distribution warehouse of Company Shop, Community Shop’s parent company, and I was absolutely blown away by the sheer volume of goods that are being recaptured and sold to be eaten. 

Community Shop bills itself as an alternative to food banks with the idea that shoppers will no longer need support after the six month membership expires. While that may be an overly optimistic target given the significant structural barriers faced by low-income families, my bigger concern with the model was the lack of emphasis on the connection between diet and health. The shop I visited did offer some produce, fresh meats, and dairy, but also had prominent displays of soda, crisps, and sweets – all at the 70% discounted price. Community Shop is currently expanding throughout England and hopes to open its first shop in London in the autumn. I hope that as the model evolves, Community Shop will make health and well-being a central component of its mission, remove unhealthy foods from its shelves, and focus on healthy options at an affordable price.

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