A supermarket opening might not be big news, but this isn’t any old grocery store we’re talking about.
It’s a new “social supermarket” — an institution that is part of a growing trend of social enterprises aimed at tackling food poverty in the UK.
The latest store opened in Liverpool on Monday, run by the nation’s first social supermarket chain, Community Shop. It’s the non-profit’s sixth store, serving local people on low incomes or on benefits by selling food and household products for up to 70% off the normal retail price.
It does this by stocking surplus food donated by supermarkets, meaning food that is still in date and of good quality but, for whatever reason, the supermarket hasn’t managed to sell. It also accepts donations of food that is not in a saleable condition, for example, tins that have been labelled incorrectly but are still perfectly good inside.
By doing this it tackles two serious problems in Britain: food waste and food poverty. According to the food redistribution charity FareShare, 4.2 million people live in “severely food insecure” homes in the UK, while 1.9 million tonnes of food is wasted by the food industry each year.
The profits raised by the sale of food are used to cover the cost of a Community Hub inside the shop, where people can access training and advice on cooking, setting up a business, job interview skills, and other personal development services.
The “Community Kitchen” on-site cafe serves affordable meals too, giving members the opportunity to meet and connect with each other.
The shop has already benefited the local area, reports said, generating 10 jobs, while the managers of the store are reaching out to more people who might benefit from the discounts.
“We are thrilled to bring our social enterprise to the heart of Liverpool,” Steph McGinty, director of retail, people, and communities at the enterprise, told local news reporters.
“We are working closely with the various local organisations, charities, and community members to help make a real difference to the lives of individuals and families across the region,” she added.
The first Community Shop opened in 2013, and is thought to be the UK’s first “social supermarket”. The concept, while relatively new in Britain, is well known throughout the rest of Europe where they originally sprung up in the 1980s.
There are different variations. A small group of stores called Your Local Pantry operates in greater Manchester, where instead of paying for each item members pay a small weekly fee of £3.50 to be able to choose 10 items from the shop.
They have opened in areas of the country dealing with high levels of poverty, but also have a strong emphasis on community. “I come in daily. It’s a low price and the people who work here make you feel welcome,” one customer, Jade, who visited Community Shop’s south Yorkshire branch in 2019 told the Guardian.
“In reality, the shop is the gateway,” Gary Stott, a director at the Community Shop network added. “Our vision isn’t to sell cheap food. It’s to build strong individuals and confident communities around food."
While agreeing that they definitely help the people who use them, some food researchers and campaigners have criticised the social supermarket model because they are concerned it lets the government and industry off the hook for tackling poverty and food waste.
The supermarkets “provide a degree of choice and dignity to those people who are food insecure, helping them to save money, gain skills and confidence,” the authors of one academic study into social supermarkets wrote in 2018.
However, “if social supermarkets become normalised, that may delay the solution to some of the deep structural problems in the British food system,” the study concluded.