What would our nation be like if we were as a nation as wealthy as we are now but we didn’t have one of our two political parties dedicated to racism and class warfare against the poor? Maybe it would be like Sweden. It’s not like the Swedes live in paradise for any number of reasons. One problem Sweden has, like the U.S., is growing income inequality. So what might the state do about that in the U.S? Well, our states would slash welfare benefits and limit what food stamps could buy while the federal government would be unable to react in meaningful ways thanks to revanchist Republicans in Congress. What would Sweden do?
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.
Wow, that’s actually a pretty smart move. Imagine the state stepping up and creating special stores for the poor with subsidized food instead of forcing them to be humiliated when they mess up the byzantine regulations for what you can buy with your EBT card and the line behind you in the grocery store gets annoyed. But you know, those Swedes are going to end up on the permanent dole and they won’t build the character one gets from said humiliation.
The Trader Joe’s guy’s plan is pretty interesting for Dorchester, but of course when you rely on a private individual to take the lead on these issues, the person can change their mind at any time. Ultimately, the state is far more likely to be effective in the long term.