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.