Key findings summarised below:

First SSM opened in Britain in 2013. Since then, the number of SSMs has been increasing steadily, and particularly in the most deprived areas.

• Four types of key actors who have set up SSMs -redistributors, local organisations, community groups, and sole traders/entrepreneurs.

• SSMs are a diverse group of initiatives. Key variables include: source of food surplus; type of access provided; pricing strategy; type of food made available; composition of workforce; nature of social support programmes/services offered; and financial strategy. 

• SSMs are social enterprises with multiple goals - economic, social and environmental


• SSMs are different from food banks in offering a degree of choice of food; by providing access to food in a retail-like environment considered to provide more dignity; and provide wraparound support for building individual resilience.

• SSMs are themselves vulnerable to a number of risks and

challenges in relation to sourcing of stock, logistics and distribution issues, financial viability, food safety, and volunteer support among others

 

We have identified inherent tensions & contradictions:

 

  • Whereas the vision is to reduce food waste, the SSM model relies on a regular and a sustainable supply of food surplus which runs counter to prevention of food surplus as a strategic priority.

  • The social mission is to support people out of food poverty, but it works within a market system (and a food industry) which has been critiqued for creating greater inequalities (through low-wage work for instance).

  • Within the context of health inequalities that already exist within communities, enabling the easy availability of ‘too cheap’ food (especially when highly processed and nutrient-deficient) and the impact on health through changing household diets and consumption patterns is not being questioned.

 

There are many existing types of SSMs, which are different in many ways. These types are only some of the possible options. We believe it is important that these options are carefully considered, thought-through, and even potentially expanded

The ‘normalising’ of social supermarkets as a response to food poverty can mask the problems to which such initiatives are emerging as a response. While the diversion of food surplus to people in need may appear to be a perfect solution from an efficiency point of view (from a supply management and retailing perspective), it requires in-depth understanding and careful consideration. Our research suggests the need for a longer-term holistic approach to alleviating food poverty which enables key stakeholders – private, public and the third sector, to:

  • understand the food system within which social supermarkets operate, especially linking both ends of the system (vulnerable consumers and vulnerable food producers) and question the role played by various intermediaries within the food system (production, storage, transport, processing, distribution, consumption, waste) in reducing or reproducing  vulnerabilities;

  • reflect on the opportunities and constraints of a bottom up approach to food poverty, and to food waste, of which the rise of the social supermarket is a good illustration; 

  • take a coordinated approach so that everybody has access to a healthy diet and there is a progressive realisation of the right to food and nutrition for all.

 

Centre for Agroecology, Water and Resilience (CAWR), Coventry University, Ryton Gardens, Coventry CV8 3LG, United Kingdom

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Photos used with permission from the initiatives in the study.

Thanks to Ben Cook and Vanshika Saxena for designing the website.