Aarian Marshall is a transportation reporter at WIRED and former CityLab contributor. She lives in San Francisco.
Rising income inequality is a problem in Scandinavian countries, too.
Sweden may seem like an idyllic paradise of high living standards, but the Scandinavian country suffers from a growing inequality problem, just like the rest of the world. The OECD reports that the country’s top 10 percent of earners now bring in 6.3 times what the bottom 10 percent makes, up from a rate of 4 that held through much of the 1990s. The city’s homeless population has also doubled since 2014, as EU migrants have streamed into the country.
If Stockholm doesn’t have a solution, it seems to have at least come up with a bandage. The capital will open its first ever discount supermarket this fall, the Swedish news site The Local reports. All Swedes receiving income support will be eligible to shop in the store, which will offer food donated by major Swedish retailers like Hemköp and Willys. The food will either be nearing or past its sell-by date (though still safe to eat) or eligible for donation because retailers have changed an item’s branding or packaging.
In this way, the discount supermarket moves toward solving another seemingly intractable problem: food waste. The charity Stockholm Stadsmission, which is organizing the supermarket, hopes to reduce the amount of edible food discarded by Swedes, about 686,000 tons a year. (That’s about 143 pounds per resident).
The business model, called a “social supermarket,” is not new. NPR’s The Salt reports that these grocery stores have proliferated in Europe since the 2008 economic downturn, popping up in the U.K., France, Romania and Switzerland, among other countries. The former Trader Joe’s executive Doug Rauch is set to open a similar non-profit discount market in the mixed-income Boston neighborhood of Dorchester in December. (Membership there will be based on zip-code, not income level). The key difference between these supermarkets and a food pantry, the retail academic Christina Holweg told NPR, is that their patrons must still purchase their groceries, giving them greater choice and perhaps even a boost in self-esteem.
"They are still treated as a customer,” Holweg said. “They can even return or exchange a product if it's not good. And this, to me, makes a major difference."
Earlier this year, a piece in The Guardian pointed out that the model is far from perfect. The question of persistent poverty, in Sweden and elsewhere, will need more than one answer.
But what happens after 12 months if the underlying problem remains? What if the ongoing problem is not a personal skills deficiency but lack of money, or a lack of jobs locally?
“The danger is that it [the social supermarket] solves hunger but it doesn’t solve the underlying causes of poverty, that it frames the problem of poverty at the level of the individual, rather than structure,” says Martin Caraher, professor of health and food policy at City University.