Food Independence and Dependence: Social Supermarkets and Food Banks

Britain-isnt-eatingBy D.J. MacLennan

How must it feel to have to rely on food banks to feed yourself and your family? The miserable fug of the Presbyterian work ethic hangs gravid over the ‘jobless’ father trudging down the road to collect his nutrition-poor but vital donated rations. Well-meaning volunteers at the food bank assist him in finding his tin of tuna, his Heinz tomato soup, his bread, his pasta, his cereal. He’s not in the mood for conversation today.

The poor suffer for the ideology of the UK’s rotten public-school élite. Without a political revolution, desperate inequity will continue. But that doesn’t mean there’s no current, workable alternative to food banks. Austria is leading the way towards a fairer, less stigmatising system that can meet the needs of those facing food poverty, and teach us all a lesson in food efficiency.

In Austria, those below the national poverty threshold – a net monthly income of less than €950 – can access government-sponsored ‘social supermarkets’ (SSMs) where merchandise is discounted by up to 70% of normal retail price. The range is limited but consistent, and they are well stocked. The goods come free-of-charge from the surplus stock of food retailers and processors – near-sell-by food, mislabelled items, products with damaged packaging. Volunteers and previously unemployed people staff the stores, which are located in every major Austrian city.

Food supply chains are systematic and complex, but usually too short. Corporate food retailers resist enforcement of ‘reverse logistics’, which would make them fully accountable for recovering and dealing sensibly with all their waste, including wasted food. SSMs don’t fully ‘close the loop’ of the food supply chain, but they do extend it by one important link. That link delivers surplus producer and retailer stock to a different consumer base, and prevents the disgusting, unethical practice of dumping perfectly good food.

Going to the supermarket to buy your shopping may be a humdrum activity, but it’s part of ordinary life. For people forced to use food banks, part of the indignity lies in the abnormality of accepting charitable handouts, which contrasts sharply with the perceived freedom of going to a supermarket to exchange honest, labour-exchanged shekels for life’s essentials and not-so-essentials. Why should those in need – including many ‘working poor’ (a horrid expression) – end up in an isolated special category as part of which they are excluded even from this normal mundanity?

Having to use a food bank would ‘grind you down’, right? In a very real and frightening sense, it certainly would, and does. Small daily stressors of worry and indignity cumulatively affect the hippocampus – a part of your brain essential to the storage of memories – causing it to atrophy. Add to that the detrimental effects of a diet low in essential fats, proteins and vitamins – dominated by liver-pounding carbohydrates – and your health would undoubtedly suffer. (As an aside, if you are donating to a food bank consider giving only protein-rich foodstuffs – they’re the most beneficial, but also of course the most expensive.)

So, can social supermarkets address these issues? (‘The social supermarket is a step forward for tackling food poverty’). 

No doubt, some SSM shoppers feel ashamed of having to use them. Nevertheless, they provide an experience closer to the ‘normal mundanity’ of grocery shopping than do food banks. One crucial difference is that SSM shoppers are customers. They may need a special pass to shop at SSMs, but once there, they pay for their goods like any other consumer. There’s also a vital element of symmetrical community to social supermarkets – an element that, despite the best efforts of their volunteers, food banks cannot provide. In terms of nutrition, SSMs can bring the price of decent food within reach of those on very low incomes.

Non-social supermarkets have social responsibilities too. The reputational risk to their businesses of ignoring customers’ ethical concerns is growing all the time. They dump food because it costs them less than it would to move, market and sell it at a discount. But reputational risk changes the equation. All major chains have statisticians and economists working away constantly, balancing up the real-terms savings of dumping versus the more ethical alternatives. This is where we come in. And we are pushing at an open warehouse door. We don’t have to ‘force’ them to adopt an unprofitable strategy; we just have to increase incrementally the saturation of reputational risk until it reaches the tipping point where it costs them less to act on dumping than not to.

We consumers – with all our picky, screwy attitudes towards food (to hell with your ‘organics’, and what’s wrong with frozen veg?) – are also a big part of the problem. We throw away ridiculous quantities of perfectly edible food, often because it has passed some arbitrary ‘sell by’. Perhaps we would act differently if there were an efficient way for us to ‘feed’ our unused goods back into the loop before they spoil. Food banks do their best to act as ‘feed in’ nodes, but logistical issues mean that most people do not donate to them regularly. If we could take our unused foodstuffs back to supermarkets as easily as (and at the same time as) we collect fresh ones, those shops might be able to get them back on the shelves in time to sell them on at big discounts to people on tight budgets. This would not negate the need for social supermarkets, but it would cut down on waste, save ‘food miles’ and bring a host of other benefits.

As neat as it would be for the purposes of this article, there isn’t a clear food independence versus dependence divide between social supermarkets and food banks. In this country, we all depend on other agencies to provide our calories. A time-rich few may grow their own, but it’s unlikely that many (if any) of them would honestly consider themselves self-sufficient in food. Food dependence is relative; those of us fortunate enough to have the resources get some say in how much of our calorie independence we cede to other actors.

Is access to food a right? (Calories are units of heat energy; we are not generally entitled to other fuels.) Even in the acidic Clash song ‘Know Your Rights’, the idea that ‘You have the right to food money’ (‘providing of course you don’t mind a little investigation, humiliation’) is a given. What’s the point of being part of a state at all if it won’t even grant you a subsistence income?

The proliferation of food banks is a sign of something gone terribly wrong in this society. Social supermarkets wouldn’t fix that overnight, but they could take a good measure of the ‘humiliation’ out of tending to that most basic of human needs – getting something to eat.



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19 replies

  1. No no no no no no no!

    Firstly, levels of stigma around these kind of organisations are still pretty high. That’s not a very good start.

    Secondly (and much more importantly) is the fact that supermarkets create poverty in the first place! They displace local merchants (and displace a hell of lot else too, with their giant stores and bigger carparks), create lots of low-paid, low-skilled, no-prospects, part-time and insecure jobs, and simply funnel money out of the community to distant shareholders and their offshore accounts. At the other end, they impoverish farmers by paying below the cost of production for food (most notably in dairy but it happens in other market segments too.) Pricing structures mean that while staple items might be cheap, the difference is made up on anyhting that’s more of a “premium” product, but due to low sales of premium products in poorer areas, the chains charge more for the staples in those areas so as to keep the overall margin up. And at the end of the day, the food in supermarkets is mostly not very nutritious and shipping grapes from Zimbabwe is damaging to the economy, soil health and sustainability of Zimbabwe as well as creating huge, unnecessary carbon costs for the transport. Also, by choosing varieties for durability in transit rather than for flavour or nutrition, we actively run down the bio-resources available to us. It is NOT the role of the state or the third sector to help supermarkets deal with their “waste” produce, and it’s pretty insulting to think that the best way to deal with the crap that “normal” people won’t buy is to foist it off on people living in poverty.

    I object to the notion that we don’t have a right to food. Actually, the UN says we do. We get things wrong by assuming that “a right to food” or “a right to a warm home” is the same thing as “enough money to buy food and fuel from intrinsically anti-poor corporations.” These things can be managed within communities in a much more effective way and provide real security for people IF we organise our systems in a more intelligent way. For example, why do we even allow these monstrous “big box” stores in our communities? Why couldn’t all that land be used as a community farm? If people want to eat the produce, all they have to do is come along and work for a couple of hours and take away whatever they need in return. It’s not charity, it’s not demeaning and it (probably) doesn’t count as earned income for the DWP.

    That’s just one tiny idea for how to do things in a slightly healthier way. For more, try looking at http://www.church-poverty.org.uk/foodfuelfinance/fffreport (some work I did on some of these issues last year, which included looking at the German Tafeln Network – very similar to the Austrian example discussed above.) Also, have a wee look at geofflawton.com to get some ideas on how the whole food system could be different. We MUST start thinking differently about our food system. Tinkering at the edges of a system that harms consumers, producers, staff and the environment is just not good enough. We need a much, much more radical re-think.

    • ” supermarkets create poverty in the first place! ”. No Kenny, no. There is so very much to agree with in your comment but not this.

      Poverty is created by rampant capitalism, which we collectively permit. To our shame. Capitalism in its amoral way inevitably and indifferently makes rich and poor. Please look at Marx and Adam Smith.

      You are focusing on a symptom and not the source of misery. Tories and big supermarkets are only the agents for a vicious amoral system, tho’ of course they enrich themselves by this.

      Churches and religion can only offer a feeble sticking plaster on social wounds; until they focus on the capitalist source of problems, they are doomed to prolong the agony of the poor by alleviating the worst excesses.

  2. Are Foodbanks the sole ‘success’ of the Tory’s ‘Big Society’ idea?

  3. It’s not just “shame” at relying on charity to feed your family (knowing that much of what is donated has come from folk who are poor as well), it’s being so hungry you have to eat food you don’t actually like and which may even make you ill. Furthermore it’s terror that the officialdom that have recorded your request for vouchers are adding that to a file that may at some point lead to decisions being taken to remove your children from your care.

  4. Add to this the huge amount of fresh (dead) fish being thrown back into sea after so called quota’s are reached. These bureaucrats are letting us demoralise and cheapen our own lives which also affects our families very existence.I promise you this: these tyrants will be held to account sooner or later.

  5. These social supermarkets sound like a concept that’s definitely worth trying! In Germany, these food banks really are highly stigmatised as well. It’s thus extremely difficult especially for teenage members of families that have to rely on them to actually be okay with using them. Of course it’s a lot better than to be hungry, but I do think that these social supermarkets might provide an appropriate alternative. Thanks for the informative post!

  6. There aint anywhere near enough decently paid jobs, particularly in the private sector, which in turn pays for the public sector. This explains the public sector budget constraints. Blair and Brown ballooned public sector jobs (an extra million+) but they did not expand the real economy enough to pay for this, and neither have the Tories. We need more, better paid jobs in the real economy. It may be nice to have millions of folk in many well paid public sector jobs but somebody (i.e. the private sector) needs to pay for this. The public sector generates only costs which somebody has to pay for – but these costs can’t be paid for by taxes on public sector workers because 100% of public sector wages must first be generated from private sector workers/business efforts. A fundamental problem here is that the UK economy is not producing anything like enough in the private sector to pay for a ballooned public sector.

    • That’s *kind of* true, but we’ve got a badly messed up private sector too. There are far too many low paid and insecure jobs. The first means a low direct and indirect tax base as well as a lot of reticence to spend on anything much. The second means people can’t commit to things like cars and houses. We also have a private sector that tends to stash cash offshore rather than reinvest it in wages or recruitment. Those are the results of government policies.

      We also funnel a ton of money into the private sector via nonsense like PFI, so instead of essentially paying a mortgage on a building a new hospital, we pay an inflated service charge on a building someone else owns that we’re only entitled to use for thirty years! We pay more for a worse service and have no asset at the end of it! If we cut out that nonsense, our finances would look better now and much better in the longer term.

      On top of all that, KPMG reported a few years back, when the recession was really biting, that British companies were sitting on the largest cash reserves they had ever had. If they had chosen to spend that money, we could have avoided years of austerity which we KNOW has stifled growth.

      You can’t cut public spending during a recession. It creates a death spiral. I’m all for efficiency in government but it makes far more sense to deal with those problems you’re not facing a poverty crisis. Right now the public sector needs to invest in the building blocks of a better society so that as the economy improves, we build from a better base and become much more resilient to future crises.

      • I agree with some of this. However, coming from a manufacturing/trading background, I fear Scotland remains in something of a long-term decline spiral, as does the whole UK. This is mainly to do with the way the UK economy is structured and regulated (or not as the case may be).
        My experience of the public sector is that it is dire in terms of efficiency – money is wasted to a terrible extent (e.g. trams, Holyrood building, many 100’s of badly set up PFI deals, 100’s of quango’s incl. excessive salaries, etc etc). It may seem reasonable to argue for more public spending, but that is precisely what has been done over the past couple of decades and we are no further forward. Just shouting for more public spending has never succeeded in really sorting out the Scottish economy. PFI is a part of the problem yet even the present Scottish Government is continuing that model for some public projects, this year in fact.
        I rather think we need to focus more attention on the private sector that currently exists in Scotland. By this I mean a specific focus on former privatised essential ‘utilities’, many of which are now owned by offshore private equity ‘funds’ – this includes energy, and key transport infrastructure, plus we need to carefully assess/regulate major specific industries like aggregates, and whisky. There is a massive financial outflow of value from these industries which does not benefit Scotland as much as it should. Some of these ‘utility’ sectors adversely affect our nation’s competitiveness. As a nation we have been quite ignorant and negligent about how we monitor and regulate these essential private sector utilities and key industry sectors. We could also mention banks, oil and universities and other sectors that do not always work in Scotland’s interests and remain poorly regulated.
        Powers over regulating such ‘business’ matters need to be devolved as part of future negotiations at Westminster. Our nation appears impoverished because private ‘offshore’ actors and others who own our critical industries are permitted to intercept too much value, or economic rents, and as you imply, they do not re-invest nearly enough capital back into our economy. A key role of Holyrood should therefore be to stop too much interception, and to make these business interests commit to new investment in new and enhanced assets; hence the need for more powers at Holyrood to properly regulate all our key industries, and to make them work to the advantage of our people. If these firms refuse to re-invest, they should be removed or replaced by the state (e.g. via tendering to bring in new ‘suppliers’/investors). This is how most other countries around the globe work as far as I can see from my international experience. So Holyrood will need a ‘Business Minister’, with teeth! And some idea of business too.

      • ”The miserable fug of the Presbyterian work ethic hangs gravid over the ‘jobless’ father trudging down the road to collect his nutrition-poor but vital donated rations.”

        Yes Kenny, how would you address this crime? Religion is rejected in this comment. Isn’t it?

        Do you then continue to say ”we build from a better base and become much more resilient to future crises.”?

        Why, Kenny, as a religionist, will you not address the key question of the inevitability of ‘future crises”, which you mention? You say they are inevitable; why will you not address the system which makes them inevitable? Could religion be bound up with a brutal, amoral economic system?

        I repeat that religion is no more than a feeble sticking plaster on a gaping wound, and fulfils the role of containing a crisis, for the benefit of capital.

        Any thoughts Kenny?

    • ”There aint anywhere near enough decently paid jobs, particularly in the private sector, which in turn pays for the public sector. ”

      What utter nonsense. You allege that private money pays for the public sector? Your capitalist model which has enriched the bankers has impoverished the social fabric – and you allege this tosh?

      We are lost if your ideas prevail.

      • There are thousands of respectable businesses, big and small, employing millions of people who pay toward the public sector. Where do you think the public sector gets its money from – trees? Government can print money, and we see where that leads. Or its people can produce goods and services to sell and extract surpluses from this. You appear to suggest that we can all live off the public sector? Uncontrolled and poorly regulated banks are a separate matter and even I would happily support a single state-owned national bank. Unregulated essential utilities (energy etc) also need to be dealt with, as do offshore private equity groups who own many former public utilities. But you should not confuse these state regulatory errors with the thousands of bona fide business activities which ultimately help make or break an economy.

        • All wealth comes from labour. Such wealth is NOT the property of private business to dispense.

          Where do I think the ‘public sector’ gets its wealth? The same source as ALL wealth – labour. Society if you wish. Without society there is no private generation of wealth. Private business utterly depends on labour and society from where it appropriates its wealth. All wealth is from labour, or society if you prefer. It does NOT belong to ‘business’.

          I reject any notion that wealth produced comes from any source other than labour – how can it be other?

          • You appear to be anti business? Ergo, you think everyone should be employed by the state? Like North Korea? Best of luck with that.

            Public sector ‘wealth’? Never heard of that in UK before. Public sector debt, yes, wealth, no. Exceptions are sovereign wealth funds in Norway, Singapore, Dubai – all have vibrant private sector as well as key state owned utilities, and well regulated of course, unlike bust UK. An example to follow perhaps?

    • ”There aint anywhere near enough decently paid jobs, particularly in the private sector, which in turn pays for the public sector.”

      Utter nonsense Darien. Where on earth do you get the fevered notion that private pays for public? The Daily Mail?

      I have to say that the rest of your post also reflects the Tory view.

      Tories and their greedy policies have impoverished Scotland; they are the enemy within. Shame, Darien.

      I also wonder why you chose that username.

  7. You appear to be antisocial, anti democratic. You avoid the reality that labour produces all wealth, where business only manages and expropriates it.

    ”Public sector ‘wealth’? Never heard of that in UK before. Public sector debt, yes, wealth, no. ”

    You expose your perverse misunderstanding in this dreadful comment, saying that wealth is private, debt is public. This is a new version of privatising profit and socialising debt. You approve of theft on a colossal scale.

    On the day when we read that the richest have doubled their fortunes, the poor visit food banks in unprecedented numbers. But you would find this perfectly logical because wealth is for private individuals.

    No example to follow, for sure.

  8. Gone a bit quiet Darien? Quite right too.

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