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What’s in a name? – Redistributing surplus food via Food hubs, food banks, social supermarkets, larders, community fridges and pantries….. Does the label matter?

In this blog post, our colleague Jacqui McDowell gives her views about the variety of community food provision models using surplus food:

Surplus food, emergency food aid and the pandemic

 Putting to one side any debate and discussion on surplus food (such as definitions or sustainability), redirecting surplus food to emergency food aid has been an important part of the response to food insecurity during the pandemic. Surplus food has come from a range of sources such as pubs, restaurants, hotels and works canteens – many of which had to close during lockdowns, or via pre-existing established routes such as Fareshare or local relationships with producers and retailers. Alongside its “cash first approach” the Scottish Government also provided funding to support organisations to distribute and use surplus food in wider community based emergency food responses, such was the severity of need that many were experiencing.

These emergency responses show a repurposing of community facilities and spaces or volunteer mobilisations (sometimes referred to as food hubs) to carry out mass production of meals or repackaging of food parcels for delivery or pick up, using surplus, locally donated or purchased food. These emergency food hubs have often brought together different community partners, including many who are new to community food work but who are energetic, enthusiastic and concerned about their communities.

These new and emergent partnerships or collaborations have often provided vital help especially where they: substituted for, or expanded usual food bank operations; were offered as part of alternatives to school meal provision; or replaced hot meals no longer able to be provided by community cafes or community meal providers.

As we now move towards thinking about recovery and renewal there is likely to be a place for ongoing emergency food provision, whether through food banks or meal provision, though at present the size and scale of this is hard to predict. It may be useful to remind ourselves that the longer term aspiration of the Scottish Government (and many advocacy organisations) has been to promote “cash first” solutions and to reduce reliance on emergency food aid, and where emergency food aid is necessary, to ensure this is provided in dignified and sustainable ways. A useful illustration of this can be found in the Menu for Change work carried out by Oxfam, Child Poverty Action Group, Poverty Alliance and Nourish Scotland.

So, looking beyond meal and parcel distribution, where and how do we see the redistribution of surplus food fitting into our future community food provision?

Food hubs, food banks, social supermarkets, larders, community fridges and pantries…

Sitting in my spare room, with terms like pantries, social supermarkets and community meals, fridges or larders in my head, I can’t help wondering if hybrids have already emerged or that there is a spectrum or continuum of operational models. I also wonder how these will evolve as we move through recovery and renewal.

But maybe I’m getting ahead of myself, perhaps, I need to be clear what I understand to be the main features of some of the different models around at the moment, before embarking on any musing about whether or not there may be hybrids emerging and why and to whom this may matter…..

Mentioned earlier, community meals were becoming more prevalent pre-pandemic as a way to support those who are vulnerable or at risk of food insecurity and use surplus food without stigma – as these can be open to all in the community. Often these are run by volunteers, perhaps with support from a local community organisation or access to a village hall or meeting space, where it is possible to access utilities at free or reduced cost. The choice of social meal option may be limited, however community members can contribute on a ‘pay as you feel’ basis or other in-kind support. There is often a strong social aspect to this model – promoting inclusion, intergenerational engagement and wellbeing.

Social supermarkets and food pantries have been around for a long time. The terms can be used interchangeably, although they use a range of operating structures. This can make things confusing as: the use of membership fees and access criteria may vary: some may offer fresh or ambient foods alongside personal hygiene products or everyday household items; items may be provided at discounted rates or members can select (or be provided with) items up to a certain value or quantity.  Some also offer informal or more formal support, such as: individual personal development sessions, group cooking or budgeting sessions, training and skills development for employment or opportunities to volunteer with other local projects.

So for the purposes of simplicity I’m going to suggest distinctions between social supermarket and pantry models lie somewhere between those discussed in A. Paget’s Demos report and those expressed in this more recent academic paper by Saxena and Tornagh. That is – while both models may have fee paying memberships and use surplus food to reduce waste and protect the environment, there may be differences between the rights and responsibilities of members and operational practice. Here’s more detail about these:

A social supermarket may have a distinct membership who may purchase food items (i.e.: groceries rather than prepared food or hot meals) and often other shopping bag items at a reduced or subsidised rate.  There is likely to be a more formal contract between the social supermarket and its members. Thus support or services may be provided, with a clear purpose to reduce and tackle the members’ food poverty as well as underlying issues.  Therefore other facilities such as a café or training room may be available.

A food pantry will also have a distinct, perhaps more community of place based membership. It is more likely that only food items may be available, both fresh and ambient.  Food may be supplied up to a prescribed financial value or quantity. The member may be able to choose what they buy, though this may be limited to ensure equity of choice between members. Any support offered may be more informal or peer to peer in nature, possibly around trying new items, recipes or cooking advice.  Using surplus or donated food, a pantry is likely to have a more immediate focus on the relief of food insecurity than wider poverty issues.

Another model – Community fridges are more likely to be open for any member of the local community to use free of charge. The surplus food can come from a variety of sources, including individuals contributing items they have at home which would otherwise go to waste. Fresh and ambient food stuffs may be available, although the range of items may vary or be in small quantities. Volunteers or peers in the community may be present during opening hours, so any support may be much more socially focused, with perhaps, sharing knowledge of ingredients or tips on use. Those responsible for managing a community fridge are likely to emphasise their role in reducing food waste to address environmental concerns rather than to reduce food insecurity, as this recent research E. Brown explores.

A community larder is more likely to sit alongside or within other services or provision, such as residential accommodation. So rather than formal membership there may be a community of interest or common access to the service. The free food available is mainly ambient items such as pasta or tinned goods. Staff on-site may provide support to choose items to make a meal or provide advice on cooking.

The current landscape of this type of food provision is busy – there is an expanding network of fridges, pantries and social supermarkets.  For example in Scotland we have seen the emergence of a Scottish Community Pantry Network while across the UK Hubbub have been providing support for the development of Community Fridges.  The Community Shop – a food redistribution franchise, is opening more social supermarkets in England, including in Liverpool.  In the last few years there has also been significant investment in a model of social supermarkets to address poverty in Northern Ireland.

So back to my lonely makeshift office musing.  Does clarity of definition or model matter and to whom? Does it just depends on your perspective?  For example, when considering the models an academic might focus on unpacking aspects of dignity such as choice, contribution or relationship, alongside operational aspects of setting, scale, resourcing, standardisation or diversity.  Providers and activists may focus on the purpose (i.e. addressing poverty verses environmental challenges, or somewhere between), the quality or range of food produce, the involvement of community members or the holistic nature of support. The hungry person might just care about cost and accessibility.

And the commissioner or funder?  Well they may look for an evidence base or seek recommendations from experts in the field. In which case how closely operational practice matches an evaluated or researched model may be something that interests them.

So when I ask does the name and label matter, I’m just wondering to what extent do differences between models of surplus food redistribution register and to whom?  Does it matter if ‘Our Community Pantry’ operates more like ‘This Place’s’ social supermarket or that’ Everyone Here’s Village Pantry’ is really a larder?

How far do operational practices morph or evolve anyway, whether by accident or design?  Who knows and who decides?

Note: This blog is focused on models which redistribute surplus food not community retail businesses, such as community owned and run shops or pubs, where food may be bought for sale at or around cost price or to serve meals.  For more information on community shops and community pubs visit the Plunkett Foundation website.





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