Dr Lopamudra Patnaik Saxena, Research Fellow, Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience, Coventry University and Co-Author of The Emergence of Social Supermarkets in Britain: Food poverty, Food waste and Austerity Retail
COVID-19 has brought food insecurity to the forefront of the public’s attention far more powerfully than ever before. While intensifying the difficulties facing those who were already food insecure, its aftershocks continue to push new groups into food insecurity. Millions more now face the prospect of living in chronic food insecurity, at least in the short-medium term. Food insecurity in the UK, as in many developed countries, is however not about food scarcity but rather about low income and economic insecurity that limits people’s ability to afford, or have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
While the national ignominy of increasing numbers of people turning to food banks has long received scathing criticism, to the extent of rich countries being called out as ‘Food Bank Nations’ (Riches 2018), another uncomfortable trend continues with increasingly uncritical popularity. Redistribution of food surplus through social supermarkets is rapidly becoming part of an accepted non-emergency response to alleviating and mitigating food insecurity in the UK.
Food surplus is essentially “edible food that is produced, manufactured, retailed, or ready to be served, but which for various reasons is not sold to, or consumed by, its intended customers” (Baglioni et al. 2017). Instead, it is redirected to meeting the food needs of those who require food assistance, and the prospects of its unwelcome expansion in the UK had been highlighted two decades ago as an indication of increasing inability to provide all citizens with adequate mechanisms, financial or social, to obtain food in culturally acceptable ways (Sustain 2000). Nonetheless, in the last seven years, social supermarkets have emerged in the UK, which may take various operational forms (for e.g. community shops, pantries, larders, community supermarkets, citizen supermarkets, food clubs, grub hubs) but what is common to them is that they stock primarily food surplus. In ‘closed’ models, driven by the food poverty imperative, they sell food surplus at highly discounted prices, or through paid membership (i.e. not handed out free as in food banks), and they are targeted at vulnerable households. In ‘open’ models, there is no membership and they are open to the public, driven primarily by the environmental imperative of food waste reduction. Closed models often provide wraparound support services (e.g. skills development, debt and financial advice, cooking sessions) and/or access to community spaces (e.g. community cafes, community food growing) as part of their ‘social agenda’, but the nature and extent of this varies along a continuum from a good range of such services to nearly non-existent or services limited to sign-posting.
A quick overview of the proliferation in the number of social supermarkets in the UK shows them to be mainly of the ‘closed’ variety, mostly targeted at those satisfying self-identified vulnerability criteria, but mainly responding to the local context of deprivation within which they are embedded. Most have limited/non-existent wraparound support services. Not too surprisingly, especially in the past few months, they have experienced a dramatic surge in demand and a growing realisation that demand will not fall in the short or medium term.
On the one hand, growth in the number of social supermarkets reflects an indomitable community spirit and ethic of ‘care by community’ initiatives providing an invaluable safety net for the increasing numbers of people living in or at risk of food poverty. On the other, it has also been about ‘filling a gap brought on by austerity ’; and currently also absorbing the economic fall-out from the pandemic, with an increasing number of ‘working poor’ subject to insecure employment, insufficient incomes, and inadequate welfare support, amidst increased costs of living.
In Coventry (where I am based), for instance, it is reported that 10 social supermarkets are in operation now, compared to just 1-2 a couple of years ago. In recent months, there have also been reports from across the country of many food banks turning into social supermarkets or food pantries.
So, where does all this lead? Is dependence on food donations and/or food surplus the best way to ensure food provision on a longer-term basis beyond emergencies? Furthermore, is food surplus sufficient or even adequate to meet the food and nutrition needs of disadvantaged groups? In short, is the widespread redistribution of food surplus via social supermarkets a magic bullet in the fight against food insecurity?
Fragile food and nutrition security
While social supermarkets can enable easy access to low cost food in an arguably non-stigmatised shopping environment and offer a degree of food choice and dignity (in contrast to food banks) depending on how they are designed and operate, thus mitigating the experience of food insecurity for some people, the challenges they face are significant. In addition to limitations of volunteer availability and economic viability, sourcing enough food surplus to meet demand, particularly sourcing enough healthy options, is of significant concern to many. Much of the operational energy in these initiatives goes into managing the logistics of sourcing, collection, storage and stock-taking, to make sure the food supply is regular and also of a consistent good quality, particularly in case of those who factor nutrition explicitly into their model. There is a constant appeal for food donations on their websites and on social media. Some top-up with food purchases from regular high street food retailers or wholesalers, to make up for missing staple items. Striking a good balance between variety, quality, and quantity of food surplus offered often becomes problematic, more so in areas with diverse populations and related food preferences.
Yet, the food provided is a key determinant of health outcomes – it contributes to the overall dietary intake and diet quality -- and this impact is more significant the longer the dependence on it by vulnerable groups. Food and nutrition security, which is dependent on an unreliable and unpredictable supply of food surplus, not necessarily culturally appropriate nor nutritionally optimal, and shouldered by the community sector always scrambling to find sufficient resources to keep it all going, is at best fragile. It remains vulnerable to potential disruptions from shocks – external (e.g. logistical bottlenecks in food surplus supply) and internal (e.g. the economic viability of the initiatives themselves).
Normalisation of food surplus disposal
The link between the mountains of food surplus building up as a result of food industry supply chain contracts and policies catering to the dominant ‘well-off’ market, and the willingness to redistribute food surplus has been open to much scepticism and criticism. Food provision in this context is akin to food surplus disposal, a way of dumping the unwanted surpluses, rather than being driven by the needs of the people. Much has been written about the unacceptable grounds for this normalisation logic – both from the social injustice perspective that it creates a two-tiered system of haves and have-nots and from the food system viewpoint that it props up a wasteful and dysfunctional food system (see Riches and Silvasti 2014). The moral case made by advocates for diverting food surplus to those “who need it most” as a ‘win-win solution’ has been roundly critiqued especially in the context of precarious zero or low-wage contracts, austerity and welfare cuts (Caplan 2017, Lambie-Mumford 2017). But, crucially, not by the general or recipient public or by the vested industry or government interests affected. Ultimately, there has been a slow but steady legitimisation of food surplus redistribution in UK’s urban foodscape, supported by powerful actors in the private, public and non-profit sectors, not very dissimilar to what has been happening in the US and Canadian context (see Riches 2018).
This is an especially sobering thought when we consider the existing health inequalities and the disproportional impact that COVID-19 has inflicted on low-income groups in the UK. The impact of the pandemic has been particularly detrimental on people living in areas of high deprivation.
Neglect of local food systems
Recent studies from different cities across the world on the impact of COVID-19 have shown the importance of local food production and more broadly local food systems in terms of coping with food crises. Beyond crises, the benefits from local food systems extend beyond food supply to multiple dimensions of resilience and sustainability (i.e. through local economic and social development) that are found to not only increase employment and income within communities but also have a positive impact on healthy food choices and diet diversity (Martinez et al. 2010).
Now, is there a relationship between the selling and buying of food surplus and neglect of local food systems? Do food surplus-based initiatives offer an easy alternative to the much more difficult task of say, building/supporting community-supported local growing, or hosting local farmers’ markets, or generating opportunities for local food processing, and so on? More broadly, is the unlocking of huge stockpiles of food surplus for redistribution undermining the scope and potential for changing policies to address food surplus generation in the first instance and the root causes of food poverty? Gaps exist in our understanding of how food surplus redistribution intersects with local food systems but posing such questions is critical if only to understand better the implications from our responses to food insecurity today and in the future.
A way forward
In the case of social supermarkets, while their aims extend beyond food provision to a wide range of social and community benefits that help build the resilience of individuals and communities, food remains at its core. Within Coventry, for instance, an alliance of existing social supermarkets is emerging with the aim of enacting greater collective purchasing power by the pooling together of resources, while at the same time a city-wide food strategy and action plan is being mooted by a cross-sectoral food partnership. There is scope here for going beyond the dependence on food surplus redistribution to explore and consider redesigning the ‘core’ to bolster a local food system or as described differently, a ‘community food system’ (Garrett and Feenstra 1999). The ‘local’ or ‘community’ here could be as small as a neighbourhood or as large as a town or a city or a region in which sustainable food production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste management are integrated in a systemic way. The concept of ‘community food hubs’ a term often erroneously used interchangeably with social supermarkets, engages with such a vision and has shown promising potential in many contexts (see Levkoe et al 2018) and could point a way forward.
What is required is a shift from linear supply-demand (of food surplus) oriented downstream piecemeal interventions to an ethically-based coherent food system approach, which takes into account nutritional value, stability, acceptability, safety, and long-term sustainability of the food supply itself while addressing the two main issues of poverty and inequalities undermining food and nutrition security. This systemic approach to food would require paying attention not only to interactions within the food system, but also its intersections with other systems (e.g. employment, housing, health, agriculture) and policies (economic, social and environmental) which bear on the desired outcomes (food security, impact on nutrition, equity, social justice, resilience, inclusive development and so on). This calls for co-ordinated, cross-governmental, multi-sectoral and multi-level food governance aiming not just at ‘’feeding” people but also “nourishing” them (GPAFSN 2016) through creating and supporting healthier, food secure, and more resilient communities.
An uncritical reliance on redistribution of food surplus via social supermarkets is not, I would contend, a magic bullet to solve food insecurity. A balance must be struck between resolving immediate food crisis through supporting income and livelihoods and promoting sustainable and ethically driven food (and nutrition) security within the context of transformative solutions that are needed to tackle the deep structural problems in the food system and the wider economy.
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Dr Lopa Patnaik Saxena is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Agroecology, Water & Resilience at Coventry University (UK). She researches on sustainable and resilient food systems, with a particular focus on community-led initiatives and their intersection with agriculture, nutrition, health, culture, gender, and the environment. Her work is situated in the UK and India. Her current research includes two strands. One is food insecurity/food poverty and the changing nature and influence of food governance at the local community level with a focus on the third sector. Lopa led the first systematic study of social supermarkets in Britain in 2016-17. The other strand is community self-organisation for resilience from a social-ecological perspective with a focus on urban biodiversity and rural indigenous food systems. In Coventry where she is based, Lopa is a member of Coventry Food Network and a Trustee of Feeding Coventry, engaged with local community action to make Coventry a sustainable food city.