Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller
Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller

KaiJune 19, 2024

What are social supermarkets, and do they really enhance people’s dignity?

Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller
Photos: Supplied / Design: Tina Tiller

They’ve been touted as an alternative to food banks that provide more choice and dignity to people struggling to afford food. Eda Tang investigates whether these claims stack up.

If you’ve heard about social supermarkets at all, it’s probably because you saw them on the news. In reports about the social initiative, politicians, supermarket bosses and social workers walk around makeshift grocery aisles uttering words like “dignity”, “choice”, “partnerships” and “affordability” to reporters desperate for a story that fits the “uplifting” slot. 

In early April, South Auckland’s first social supermarket, Tatou, opened in Māngere. It’s Foodstuffs North Island’s 11th social supermarket, and the mega grocery retailer is about to announce its 12th. Though it wasn’t exactly clear in media coverage of the opening how social supermarkets worked, the buzzwords were enough to soothe some of my catastrophic anxieties about food insecurity and inequity. But I started to have questions. Could anyone just go at any time? Who qualifies as being in need? Does this actually free New Zealanders from the supermarket duopoly? 

The idea of a social supermarket is to provide people who experience food insecurity the dignity of choosing what they need for themselves in a supermarket-style environment, rather than being given a pre-packed food parcel which might not meet the recipients’ needs. Accessing social supermarkets involves wraparound services like financial mentoring and counselling. But can the words “dignity” and “choice” coexist within a reality where the need for hardship grants and food assistance is increasing for families with children?

People who use social supermarkets are allocated points to “spend” on food. (Photo: Supplied)

To access Tatou, the new social supermarket in Māngere, clients speak to a financial mentor at the site of the social supermarket about their situation before they are set a number of points to “spend”. Clients can usually get a shop done on the same or next day.

Just under two months since Tatou’s opening, 94 whānau have shopped at the social supermarket. Tatou keeps shelves stocked with a range of 750 grocery items through donations from PaknSave Māngere, funding from the Ministry of Social Development, and private donations. Its chief executive, Lara Dolan, says the number of shopping trips that a client can access depends on the support needed “for family or individuals to get back on track”. 

But accessing a social supermarket isn’t necessarily as easy as turning up and asking for help. Steve, whose full name has been omitted for privacy, had been working in the public service for almost 20 years when he was recently made redundant. Since then, he’s done a few rounds at the local social supermarket to support his wife, child, and pets. While Foodstuffs North Island says that clients are not limited to any number of shops so long as they follow a certain process, Steve says he is permitted to shop three times a year and that visits must be at least four weeks apart.

Steve, who is 45 years old, is on a sickness benefit and taking an indefinite break from work due to burnout. “I don’t have a feeling of food insecurity, but the food banks and social supermarkets help me save money on food so I can pay for other necessities,” he says. 

Foodstuffs says a large basket costs $30 for 75 points, but at the social supermarket Steve visits in west Auckland, he says he pays $40 for 65 points allocated to his family of three. This makes his shop about a third cheaper than going to PaknSave, he says. “You definitely can’t get all your groceries through a social supermarket. There’s a lot they don’t have like [fresh] meat and fresh milk. It just subsidises your weekly grocery shop.”

The haul from one of Steve’s “shops” at the social supermarket. (Photo: supplied)

Steve told The Spinoff that during visits to the social supermarket’s budgeting advisor, they “harass you to give your financial details, including letting them go through bank statements … I wasn’t going to show all my private information to them just so they would let me have one additional shop for the year.” 

After making an appointment, Steve says he is put on a waitlist and waits anywhere between one to four weeks before his shop. When he shops, Steve gets a large trolley full of groceries, he tells The Spinoff, including fresh vegetables, seven cartons of milk, a large bag of cat food, two boxes of laundry powder, a tray of sausages, and a large block of cheese. 

A free food parcel for Steve doesn’t provide nearly as much choice as the social supermarket. (Photo: supplied)

In a food parcel, which is free from the same organisation, there’s usually a kilogram of chicken or mince, some bread, maybe some fruit and veges, and whatever else they have at the time, says Steve. “Essentially all the stuff is past its best by date, but it’s still fine to eat. The meat is always frozen.” 

So while Steve can get a food parcel the same day he turns up, there’s less choice compared to a social supermarket – but there are a few more barriers to jump over to access the latter. “I have seen people crying in the office there,” Steve says. “I guess it’s really hard for some people to ask for help.” 

Steve is grateful to have the support. But charitable food aid has been criticised as putting a bandaid over systemic inequality while benefiting the reputations of supermarket chains, for example in a 2019 letter published in the Guardian signed by 58 leading academics and campaigners. 

Social supermarkets have operated in the UK and Australia for years. A major academic study on social supermarkets in Britain in 2018 said that while they are a step up from food banks, they don’t address the issues of poverty and risk becoming a chronic part of the poverty economy. 

And recently, Māngere community leader and anti-poverty campaigner, Peter Sykes, has criticised social supermarkets as being a marketing exercise akin to “greenwashing”. Foodstuffs North Island reportedly earned $44.9 million net profit last year, while many of its un-unionised workers are being paid minimum wage, according to First Union. 

“The consumer doesn’t get any freedom of choice any more than any other foodbank,” Sykes says in a Pacific Mornings interview. “It’s not actually changing the access to quality food and changing the systems … There are lots of other things they could do if they were seriously concerned about food prices or access to food or food sovereignty.”

Sykes says, for example, if Community Services Card holders were given a 10% discount, low-income earners could still have full choice of a supermarket. He says assessing people to determine how many points they can shop with is “like saying, ‘You’re poor, you’re the very poor or you’re the poorest of the poor, and you’ve got nothing to contribute except you should learn how to budget better’ … you’re not going to change people’s wellbeing unless you build their mana.” 

Esther Gordon of Foodstuffs responded: “Even if a 10% discount was offered to those in need, it still doesn’t necessarily enable people who are really struggling to fill their shelves.” Gordon says the provision of food at free or very little cost with wraparound services that meet more than just their food needs is “a really positive way to support the communities that we operate in.”

Willa Hand, the head of membership experience for the social supermarket chain, says clients have commented on how they’ve never pushed a trolley before, or haven’t been to a supermarket for five years. “The one that I love most is a grandmother talking about taking her grandchild shopping,” says Hand. “Just that kind of shift in language from ‘we picked up a food parcel.’” 

Willa Hand, head of membership experience at Foodstuffs North Island. (Photo: Supplied)

What makes social supermarkets unique, she says, is that the community partners provide wraparound support like budgeting and welfare services. Hand explains how each supermarket has a different community partner, so the clients will look different at each one and so will the products on the shelves. 

The idea of social supermarkets emerged from a conversation between Chris Quin, chief executive of Foodstuffs North Island, and Murray Edridge, the Wellington City missioner, about providing food to people in a more dignified way than “being given second stock or just what’s available or what community groups have been able to get their hands on,” Hand says. Then in March 2021, Foodstuffs Northland partnered with Wellington City Mission to open the first one in Aotearoa. 

Dave Letele, founder of Brown Buttabean Motivation (BBM), has run the Tokoroa social supermarket since August 2022, as well as food banks, community kitchens and free gyms in Tokoroa and Auckland. “If it wasn’t for Foodstuffs, there would be literally thousands of people going without food,” he says. “You’ll never hear me say anything bad about Foodstuffs because when the [Hawkes Bay] floods happened, they were the first people to ring me to give us money. I knew the government was hopeless and they take about 15 days to get any kind of official help to these groups.” 

Dave Letele (left), founder of Brown Buttabean Motivation, runs a social supermarket and food banks. (Photo: Supplied)

At its peak, the BBM food bank served 700 families, costing $1 million to run a year. But this year, 500 families have been cut from its free food parcel service due to the lack of government funding. Now, BBM is reliant on donations and corporate support. Currently, anywhere between 25 to 50 families shop at BBM’s volunteer-run social supermarket each week. The $35,000 they did receive from the government this year was spent in a month, Letele says. “I’m always grateful for the support, but you can see how little it is in the scheme of things,” he adds. “It is extremely hard to continue this much-needed service. Imagine the cost to society if groups like us just stopped.” 

Letele says a lot of food banks will take what they can so people don’t go hungry. Even if it’s not the best quality food, it means kids can go to sleep with food in their stomachs. At the social supermarket, healthy food is allocated fewer points than treat foods to enable clients better access to nutrition. 

He believes the Ministry of Social Development should back social supermarkets as opposed to the food bank model. “The reason I love the social supermarket model is that it gives choice to people, and we can build a relationship with families,” Letele says. “We can understand what’s going on in their lives … we can better understand how we can help them break these cycles.” 

So is there something more that Big Food could be doing to help people who are struggling? “This would be a question better suited to this government,” Letele says, “who don’t give a shit about hungry kids or parents stealing food to feed their kids.”

The article has been updated to include responses from Foodstuffs North Island to aspects of Steve’s account. 

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