Blog, Public Affairs

Let them eat cake! Or is that corned beef?

Thirteen million people are believed to live below the poverty line in the UK. Rising costs of food and fuel combined with static incomes, high unemployment, and changes to benefits are causing more and more people to seek help with their basic needs.

Food banks are one answer, and with almost 400 already launched, the Trussell Trust is one of the biggest providers. Its aim is to open one in every town; providing those who are referred to them in crisis with a minimum of three days emergency food. But for all their good intentions charity food banks can only provide a temporary sticking plaster. Now there is another contender gearing up to supply the poor!


Church food bank

Just before Christmas Britain’s first “social supermarket” opened its doors, offering shoppers on the verge of food poverty the chance to buy their supplies at up to 70% less than normal high-street prices. If successful, the Community Shop, in Goldthorpe, near Barnsley, South Yorkshire, could be replicated elsewhere in Britain. It is reportedly backed by retailers, manufacturers, and brands like Asda, Morrison’s, Co-operative Food, M&S, Tesco, Mondelez, Ocado, Tetley, Young’s, and Müller.

Community Shop is a subsidiary of Company Shop, Britain’s largest commercial re-distributor of surplus food and goods, which works with retailers and manufacturers to liquidate their mistakes. Selling on residual products, such as those with damaged packaging or incorrect labelling, to membership-only staff shops in factories. The new project goes one step further, located in the community for the first time and also matching surplus food with social need.

Goldthorpe is an area of social deprivation and membership of the pilot store will be restricted to people living in a specific local postcode area who also get welfare support. Community Shop customers will not only get access to cheaper food, but will also be offered programmes of wider social and financial support, such as debt advice, cookery skills and home budgeting.

Should the pilot prove successful and sustainable, Community Shops will open in London and elsewhere next year. However, not all commentators welcome the move. Some, whilst conceding that the scheme offers access to cheap food without the humiliation associated with using food banks, suggest this is just the thin end of the wedge. The introduction to society of ‘second class citizen shopping’, and providing retailers with a positive message with which to divert lingering criticism of food waste are just two of the accusations levelled at Community shops.

In the USA, about 1 in 7 Americans receive food stamps – vouchers exchanged at specified stores – to supplement their low-income. Critics of Community Shops have voiced concerns that they are simply a covert way of introducing something similar in the UK. As one blogger put it, “It is still a division of classes, the haves and the have-nots. There would be riots if food stamps were issued in this country, this is why these stores are being introduced. Slowly and surely they will spread and when there is one in every poor community, vouchers for these stores will begin to replace some benefit payments.”

It is early days for the Goldthorpe shop, and the jury is still out on this particular initiative. But with food adulteration stories reaching the press, one can’t help wondering just what kind of damaged or incorrectly labelled foodstuffs are going to be foisted on the long-suffering shoppers, who in return could potentially have to endure ‘good advice’ on cooking, budgeting, and debt. Whatever the rights and wrongs, isn’t there just a hint of Victorian style philanthropy about all this?