London could be on its way to tackling food waste and food poverty, as the Mayor announces funding of £300,000 to create more 'social supermarkets'. The capital's first Community Shop opened in West Norwood last year, selling surplus food from a range of high street supermarkets for up to 70% below the original cost.
In February, a report by the London Assembly Environment Committee found that just 34% of food waste was recycled, yet food bank usage has reached record highs. Charities are aiming to bridge that gap with a range of social supermarkets, community cafés and sustainability projects.
Why is there so much food waste?
It's down to a combination of reasons. As we've previously pointed out, Londoners aren't great at recycling and local authorities can't afford to do it properly. But social supermarkets are tackling food surplus from within the supply chain itself. Retailers often have to throw out food due to labelling errors, short shelf-life and over-ordering. Unless it's redistributed, all of this uneaten food ends up in landfill. Food labelling plays a part in this too. The Best Before Project (BBP) charity say vast quantities of food are wasted when the ‘best before’ label is confused with the 'use by' date. The 'best before' date is about quality and the 'use by' date is about safety — BBP say there's no risk in eating food past the 'best before' date.
London Mayor Boris Johnson launched the FoodSave scheme in 2013, to help retailers reduce waste and redistribute unused food rather than see it disappear into landfill. One of the scheme's biggest initiatives started in Borough Market in 2014 — FoodSave collaborates with zero food waste charity Plan Zheroes to collect unsold fruit, vegetables and bread when trading ends each Saturday. It's then donated to another local charity, the Dragon Café, who produce affordable and healthy meals for vulnerable people. Boris Johnson said:
“I want to see more innovative schemes on our high streets that tackle food waste, help communities and offer access to a variety of good standard cheaper food.
“I’m also immensely proud that small cafes and restaurants have managed to stop 1,000 tonnes of food being wasted by strategically diverting their surplus stock with help from my FoodSave scheme. It’s important we continue to reduce London’s landfill and ensure quality edible food is not discarded.”
Food poverty and the social supermarket
The Community Shop initiative has arrived at a time when there's a much greater awareness of poverty in the capital, particularly food poverty. One of the main drivers behind the project is to deliver surplus food to people who need it most; using retail outlets in areas of deprivation and opening them up to membership for people on low incomes who struggle to make ends meet. Its founder, John Marren, said:
“Community Shop is tackling the problem of surplus food, whilst giving it real social purpose. By offering high-quality low-cost food to people experiencing tough times, we not only help ease the pressure on family budgets but also support members to kick-start positive change in their lives.”
Their aim is to create an 'improvement roadmap' with customers to make longer term changes to their lifestyle. As well as learning how to cook healthy food on a budget, this can include debt advice and help with searching for jobs. We asked the charity about their 'Success Plan' with customers. Here's an example they gave us, where the name Jenny is used instead of the customer's real name at her request:
Jenny was one of the first members to join our London store. After completing The Success Plan, she worked with us and accessed support to sort out a debt issue. She wanted to get a job but didn’t know where to begin. But she was filled with confidence from sessions three and four which focus on employment. She applied for a job at the local health and leisure centre when we posted the advert in the café. One of the team helped her to prepare for the interview, and another Community Shop member, who is into fashion, helped to advise her what to wear. The team are thrilled she has been offered the job and Jenny says she is “over the moon”.
Not just anyone can pitch up and fill their basket for peanuts either. Membership is only open to people in the local area who are in receipt of certain benefits, and they have to provide proof of these.
There's also an in-house community café which provides wholesome meals. If, like us, you wondered what happened to unsold food in the shop, it gets turned into ingredients for the café.
The charity says it wants to plan more stores in areas of deprivation across London and throughout the UK, urging London boroughs who would like a Community Shop in their area to get in contact.
Pop up shops
A disused police station in Leytonstone has recently been transformed into a pop up social supermarket in a joint enterprise between the Best Before Project (BBP) and Forest Recycling Project.
Like the Community Shop, the BBP wants to use the problem of food surplus to address food poverty. In their pop up shop, the charity sells surplus food from supermarkets like Tesco, M&S and Sainsbury's for a small donation decided by the customer. We talked to BBP founder Voytek Stando:
"I started Best Before Project when I realised that confusion around date marks on the labels is one of the most important causes of enormous food waste that is happening all over the world - the same world where there are areas of real hunger, where starving children die out of malnutrition. It comes that about 80% of foods available on the market have got no expiry dates! And that means millions of tonnes of edible products are being wasted without any reason, with all the side consequences around it. The scale of the problem is huge and doesn't refer just to the UK. Our Leytonstone shop is just a small step on the road."
Stando says that if the pilot shop in Leytonstone is successful, he wants to open more shops, adding: 'it's the time to educate the public by retail distribution'. Unlike the Community Shop, there's no membership criteria:
"We don't mark the products with any price tags - you pay what you feel, and everyone is welcome - no proof of income is needed, you might be homeless or a billionaire - just pop in and get whatever you want."
BBP has a free shop in Harrow and four other storage facilities around London. The Leytonstone pop up will be there for two months and is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays between 10am and 6pm.
A community issue
No longer just an experienced of the jobless, food poverty has become part of life for some Londoners on low incomes too. Crucially, there's a difference in what food banks and social supermarkets set out to achieve. Food banks exist to help in a crisis, for example, where a customer's benefits have been delayed. They're not intended to provide long-term assistance. Users are given a food voucher by a referral agency such as the Citizens' Advice Bureau, social services or job centre and can only use the service three times.
As public awareness of food poverty increases, along with how non-profit organisations are stepping in to help those hit hardest by welfare reforms, so do arguments against doing so. One of the main oppositions to food banks is that demand is created by supply. It's not exactly a stretch to see this being applied to social supermarkets too. Arguably, there shouldn't be a need for either to exist.
A report published by food bank charity the Trussell Trust said around 43% of people using their services cited benefit changes or delays as the reason for seeking emergency food supplies. The Conservatives have consistently denied a link between benefit reforms and increasing food poverty but could a lack of will to address inherent problems with the welfare system be partly driven by the knowledge that charities will step in and help? London Assembly Labour economic spokesperson Fiona Twycross said:
“Social supermarkets are an innovative way to help combat food waste and poverty, however the fact that so many Londoners are being forced to rely on these kinds of services is deeply concerning. The Mayor has to accept that increasing numbers of Londoners facing low pay, underemployment and benefit sanctions are relying on these kinds of enterprises, not out of choice but need.”