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Blog Post

Community Shop: The UK’s First Social Supermarket, Delivering Surplus Food For Social Good

27th January 2014

Sarah Dunwell, Director of Social Affairs at Company Shop, discusses the social benefits behind redistributing surplus food

If you haven’t been to Goldthorpe before, you may be unaware of its rich history. A former mining town within South Yorkshire with a proud heritage, it has fallen on hard times in recent years, and is now amongst the most deprived areas in the UK.
Food poverty is a real problem here, like many ‘pockets’ around the UK. I’ve seen the area struggle as industries closed down and job opportunities disappeared, with an increasing number of people having to choose between feeding their family and heating their home.
Yet against this challenging backdrop, we also hear statistics from places like the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) that estimate 15 million tonnes of food waste is generated per year in the UK. A report from the Institution of Civil Engineers estimated that globally as much as half of food produced – almost two billion tonnes – is never eaten.

UK retailers are beginning to tackle the problem at store level, but surplus food still persists further up the supply chain because of such things like forecasting errors, seasonal promotions, packaging faults, short shelf life or labelling errors. The team at Company Shop has long recognised the potential in using this supply chain surplus for social good, and I was delighted to join the team in March 2013 to help develop that further.
Company Shop is the UK’s largest redistributor of surplus food. Under the leadership of John Marren, we’re now helping the food industry stop more than 30,000 tonnes of good food going to waste each year, by redistributing surpluses to those working within the food industry itself through our network of staff shops.

However, with food poverty continuing to spiral and families going hungry, we wanted to build on our experience and expertise behind factory gates, and take our proposition out onto the high street.
We looked across the Channel at how the 1000 ‘Social Supermarkets’ in France, Austria, Belgium and beyond have given struggling families a low cost retail option, whilst simultaneously tackling food industry surpluses. A remarkably similar model to what Company Shop was already doing so successfully, but in a different setting.

This is when the idea of the first ‘Community Shop’ was born.

It was agreed it should adopt the Company Shop model, utilising the strength of our logistics and infrastructure – but be open to people at risk of deprivation. Instead of members of the store being factory workers, they would be members of the public, living within a specific postcode area and in receipt of welfare support. It would give them the opportunity to be empowered, retain choice and dignity in tough times. We wanted to not only provide those in need with access to low-cost food – filling a gap between food banks and mainstream retail – but also help address the issues that are pushing them towards food poverty to begin with.

The concept came to fruition on 9th December 2013, when the UK’s first social supermarket officially opened its doors in Goldthorpe.
At first sight it looks like any other supermarket. But look more closely and you see the differences. You might have produce with a short shelf-life, or cheese with an incorrect weight label, or some Christmas packaging in January, but the food is all perfectly edible. Even more bizarre when you first walk around the store is to see ASDA packaging, next to Morrisons and even Marks and Spencer products. Staples such as sugar, pasta and rice, sit beside more expensive goods such as French cheeses, lasagnes and desserts – the only major difference from a ‘normal’ store is that no alcohol or tobacco is sold.

What is important is that Community Shop members not only have access to cheaper food, but have the chance to enrol on the tailored support programmes within our ‘Community Hub’. From debt advice to cookery skills, home budgeting to CV writing, the Community Shop team aims to provide members with a route back to financial independence. A membership card is given for six months and granted with the aim of working with each person to help them on an upwards journey.

A lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes to get here. The pilot store launch was publicly supported by major retailers, brands and manufacturers, including ASDA, Morrisons, The Co-operative, M&S, Tesco, Mondelēz, Ocado, Tetley, Young’s and Muller, amongst others. And the response to our launch was fantastic – we received significant coverage on TV, radio and print, including Mail Online, The Guardian, BBC One’s ‘The One Show’, Chinese TV and Simon Mayo’s BBC Radio 2 show.

Moving forward, our vision is to open up to 20 additional Community Shops in London and across the UK this year, once we have proven the pilot’s success and sustainability.

We’re thankful for all of the support we have received so far and look forward to expanding the model to deliver even more surplus food, for social good.

Read more about Community Shop on our website: www.community-shop.co.uk and Twitter feed: twitter.com/CommunityShops.

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