The new Department for Communities (DfC) has set aside £1.65m to pay for a network of ‘community food shops’ and ‘social supermarkets’ across Northern Ireland, including in Londonderry, in order to tackle food poverty.
It made the commitment after the Welfare Reform Mitigations Working Group (WRMWG), headed by Professor Eileen Evason, suggested far more “thoughtful strategies” than food banks are needed to address this problem.
She believes ‘social supermarkets’ can preserve poorer people’s dignity by offering them a choice in a way that food banks can’t.
A report published by the WRMWG earlier this year said food poverty should be addressed “through provision of £1.65m to explore ways to improve access to affordable food through a network of community food shops/social supermarkets.”
Officials handling the former Department of Social Development (DSD) functions within the new DfC have agreed to the demand and say it will consider how best to develop the new social store model.
“£1.65m has been set aside to address food poverty as suggested and the Department is currently considering ways to address this,” it’s been confirmed.
“Some initial research has been completed and further research is scheduled yo begin in July 2016, subject to approval of options progressing this work.”
WRMWG reported: “There is a need to address food poverty in Northern Ireland.
“For many, dealing with this issue is synonymous with food banks but far more thoughtful strategies are developing.
“We would wish support to be given to projects meeting the following criteria: respect for the dignity of recipients of help; promoting employability of those delivering help; providing nutritious food and meeting the needs of children, who qualify for free school meals in term time, during school holidays. Northern Ireland is only at the start of work in this field and intervention now would be timely.”
The group pointed out that social supermarkets have proven successful in Britain and France and how the Belfast Food Network is recommending the development of social supermarkets and community food shops as the next stage in tackling food poverty.
“In other parts of the UK Community Shops operate, this provides a good model that could be replicated in Northern Ireland. The first two UK social supermarkets, run by Community Shop, opened in 2013 and 2014,” WRMWG reported.
“They secure surplus food from manufacturers for 10 pence in the pound and sell it for 30 pence in the pound. The food itself is all within date and of good quality.
“Only people in receipt of means-tested benefits are able to buy from Community Shop, which operates on a membership scheme. Once fully operational, the supermarkets will be self-sustaining. Each has an on-site café and runs group sessions designed to help individuals with the problems that have left them vulnerable to hunger,” it added.
It points out that there are now over 500 social stores in France, some of which have been operating since the 1980s.
“Social stores are designed for people with low income but who are reluctant to use food banks.
“The principle of social stores is that giving people the choice between different products and having them pay for them just like any customer of a regular store, preserves their dignity. There are over 500 such stores in France selling everyday goods for about 10 or 20 per cent of their ‘regular retail price’.”