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The U.K.’s First “Social Supermarket” Fights Food Poverty

The Community Shop is more than a discount supermarket–it’s a hub that provides everything from debt advice to cooking classes.

For someone struggling to afford basic groceries, a discount supermarket can help, but it still doesn’t solve the basic problem of food poverty. In the U.K., a new store is trying get a step closer to a real solution with the country’s first “social supermarket.”

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“We’ve had discount food stores on our high streets for a decade now, and haven’t made any really significant impact on the lives of the people who live in the most vulnerable communities,” says Sarah Dunwell, director of environment and social affairs at Company Shop, the business that launched the new store. “We know that just having access to cheap food isn’t enough.”


The social supermarket sells food for up to 70% less than traditional supermarkets, but also includes services like debt advice, addiction support, and other counseling. “Each of our community stores will also have a cafe and a cookery school onsite, and a very bespoke individual program for each one of our members, recognizing that the causes and the consequences of food poverty are complex and chaotic,” Dunwell says.

Some services come from the store’s own staff, while others come from nonprofits or governments programs that use the store’s cafe space. “It forms kind of a community hub that allows all sorts of other services to be delivered while people are here shopping,” adds Dunwell.

The first Community Shop is located in a former coal mining village in Northern England, and is open only to qualifying local residents on welfare. Membership is required because the brands and larger chains who provide the food don’t want to cannibalize their own businesses, and also because the store can only provide individualized services for a limited number of people.

Inside, the aisles look like what you would find in a regular supermarket. “We don’t sell alcohol or tobacco, but other than that it just looks like any other supermarket. Our shoppers can get all of the grocery items you’d expect,” Dunwell says. “The only caveat to that is that while it might be Red Leicester cheese today, it might be cheddar cheese tomorrow, because we don’t know what’s coming towards us down that supply chain.”


When manufacturers have extra food because of overproduction or a cancelled order, they can send it to Community Shop instead of to a landfill. This also lets them avoid other discount stores.

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“The U.K. has lots of 99 pence stores,” Dunwell says. “But many manufacturers and brands don’t want to use them because it creates an environment where shoppers perceive the value of the product to be 99 pence, and when they see it somewhere else for 2 pounds, they won’t buy it. Whereas when they send it to us, they’re two completely different customer bases, so you haven’t got that devaluation of the product line.”

After testing out the first Community Shop, the company plans to build a larger network. Company Shop, the parent organization, launched 40 years ago as a way for the U.K.’s food manufacturers to sell surplus stock to their own factory workers. But they wanted to do more.

“We were looking for a way of getting that model out from behind factory gates and onto the high streets, and wanted to get that food to the people who really needed it the most,” Dunwell says. “Now we have a new way to reach them.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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