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Britain’s new wave of militant grocers

Sarah Butler, Observer 26 Feb 17

So much food goes into landfill while many families go hungry. Sarah Butler meets the shopkeepers fighting waste

A steady stream of shoppers are filling their baskets with biscuits, fizzy pop, risotto rice and tins of tomatoes at Niftie’s grocery store in Dover on a cold January morning. Everything they’re buying would have been thrown out by a mainstream supermarket. Shelves are piled with food well past its best before date, slightly squashed cakes and some pretty unusual discontinued products including mojito mouthwash (90p), not usually available for sale in the UK.

If you’re not bothered about instructions in another language, misprinted labels or biscuits that may be several months past their peak quality – but not stale – you can stock up for a fraction of the price you might pay in a regular shop. Prices start at 5p and go up to £1 with a jar of Ragu sauce selling for 50p and fruit juice for 40p.

Tracey Young, 53, a carer, single parent and Niftie’s regular, says: “This saves me a fortune and they deliver when I buy too much to carry. I’m here every week and this shop has helped me out quite a lot. It’s a shame so many supermarkets throw away good food.”

Niftie’s is part of a new wave of retailers trying to capitalise on a national avalanche of surplus food which is in demand from hard-pressed families. The Real Junk Food Project, a charity which operates a chain of “pay as you feel” cafés using surplus food, now has two Sharehouse food stores connected to its operations in Leeds and Sheffield. Founder Adam Smith says he expects to open about 10 more around the country by the end of this year. There are also several Affordable Foods stores in Cornwall as well as the national Company Shop group which redistributes surplus food through staff shops. The Sharehouse shops stock goods that are close to or past their best before date as well as items that have been damaged or nabbed from supermarket bins. Some food is donated by retailers, including Sainsbury’s and Marks & Spencer. Visitors make voluntary donations and some people have provided furniture for the café or volunteer their time in return for food.

Niftie’s has just expanded online where it competes with Approved Food, a discount specialist that stocks 2,000 items which are surplus or close to their best before date.

While the number of people using food banks has risen, there’s plenty of surplus food to hand. Supermarkets and suppliers waste an estimated 1.9m tonnes of food every year. In total, the avoidable food waste created by the grocery sector each year is worth around £1.9bn. Adam Smith says he believes even that is an underestimate. “It’s shameful,” he says. “Right now some people are in a desperate situation and there is outrage about food waste. We get a huge spectrum of the general public visiting. Some just want to support us and others need to have the food. There’s a hidden level of poverty in the UK that can’t claim benefits and can’t afford to put good food on the table.” He reckons their Pudsey store gets between 500 and 1,000 visitors a day, with the café, school food programme and store all operating in partnership with each other to handle a mountain of surplus food.

Niftie’s founder Nathan Richards, who began the store from his front room last summer, says he is operating as a nonprofit social enterprise. A gifted market trader who began the shop as a way to get back into employment after struggling with depression, he is in a hectic whirl, chatting to customers, checking on a delivery of unwanted drinks and trying to pack up boxes for online orders. “The government is letting the working class fend for themselves,” he says. “We are stepping up and it shows British spirit. This business has had an effect on my town. More people are fundraising and are aware of others.”

Richards gets his stock from supermarket suppliers who are stuck with too much produce after cancelled or reduced orders, or from the local food bank which doesn’t like to give out food that’s close to its best before date. He goes for brands people can recognise, gets about a fifth of his stock for free and pays for the rest. He admits it’s tricky to make the economics stack up when most people spend only a few quid on a basket of items, but reckons he’s moved 100 tonnes of stock since he opened in July, keeping it out of landfill and saving people money. “My target is to help families who are struggling to get by. Nobody should be going without a meal.”