How social supermarkets are filling a gap in austerity Britain

29 August 2018

A new study from Coventry University has mapped the growth of social supermarkets and found that while they help support people who are struggling, they do little to challenge the inequalities in the food system.

'Social supermarkets have emerged to fill a gap in austerity Britain by providing a social safety net. In the short term, these initiatives provide a degree of choice and dignity to those people who are food insecure, helping them to save money, gain skills and confidence. They are a step beyond food banks and help in mitigating the effects of poverty and social vulnerability. Their impact on the increasing numbers of people turning to them cannot be underestimated.

However, social supermarkets are also vulnerable. Risks to their survival arise from the complexity and unpredictability of food surplus supply links, a heavy reliance on volunteers in some cases, and their financial viability. This raises questions about their sustainability and the positive outcomes they expect to achieve in supporting vulnerable people.

If social supermarkets become normalised, that may delay the solution to some of the deep structural problems in the British food system and economy which such initiatives emerged as a response to. Their vision is to reduce food waste, but they rely on a regular and continuous supply of food surplus which undercuts the prevention of food waste as a priority. Their social mission is to support people out of food poverty, but they work closely within a market system and a food industry which has faced criticism for creating greater inequalities through low-wage work.

Their ability to provide healthy nutritious food is variable and often limited. In many cases, there are few questions being asked by social supermarkets about the issues associated with providing cheap food that is highly processed and nutrient-deficient – and the impact this has on existing health inequalities in the communities they serve.

So, while these bottom-up approaches offer important opportunities to help society’s most vulnerable, it is vital to reflect critically on their place within the context of transformative solutions which are needed to tackle the root causes of food poverty and food waste in the long term.'

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Leon Ballin
Sustainable Food Cities

Sustainable Food Cities is a partnership programme run by

Soil Association

Food Matters

Esmée Fairbairn Foundation
Sustainable Food Cities is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation 

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