‘Sweden has a poverty problem’: the social shops that offer food at rock-bottom prices | Sweden

Pred and prosperous Sweden, with its famously generous welfare system and abundance of green energy, should – in theory – be better equipped than most European countries to take a hit from the continent’s cost-of-living crisis.

Measured in GDP per per capita, it is the EU’s fifth-richest member state. Natural gas accounts for only 2% of its energy, insulating it from the worst economic ravages of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Poverty is far below the European average.

But rapidly rising electricity bills and rising food price inflation are taking their toll here as elsewhere. “Sweden also has a poverty problem,” said Johan Rindevall. “We might not talk about it as much, but it’s there — and it’s definitely gotten worse this year.”

Rindevall is well placed to know. The 39-year-old former tech industry worker runs The food missionor Food Mission, a unique chain of social supermarkets in Sweden that has expanded rapidly since January, more than doubling its customer base as it offers means-tested members the chance to shop for food for less.

Johan Rindevall in a Matmissionen store in Stockholm.
Johan Rindevall in a Matmissionen store in Stockholm. Photo: Simon Johnson/Reuters

The food mission’s eight stores – five in Stockholm, three of which opened this year, two in Gothenburg and one in Malmö – sell food donated by producers and retailers that are at risk of going to waste, usually because they have cosmetic blemishes, damaged packaging or a short circuit. expiry date.

The organization’s goals are threefold: to reduce food waste, to train new employees – about 70% of employees are on various job market insertion programs and 40% go on to find full-time work – and above all to sell food at very low prices to people in need that. Revenue from the stores also helps subsidize a separate food bank operation, with some donations distributed to NGOs working with those in the most extreme need, mostly the homeless.

Rindevall says that Matmissionen works on the principle of sticking as close to a familiar shopping experience for its customers as it can. “Our focus groups show that there is a real stigma around food giveaways. So we decided to let them buy what they want, albeit at a very steep discount … It’s just more empowering that way,” he says. “People want , that things should be as normal as possible.”

In fact, everyone can shop at Matmissionen – but only registered members, who must book a place to shop, get the lowest prices. Membership is open to those with a monthly income of less than £11,200 (about £880) in wages or benefits. Membership prices are rock bottom: five kroner (40p) for a loaf of bread, six for a kilo of bananas and kroner 33 for 500g of minced beef.

It is an offer that is increasingly needed. Sweden’s welfare system has been steadily cut in recent years, widening the gap between rich and poor and leaving more and more people vulnerable to inflation, which has averaged around 8% this fall.

Household incomes have also been hit by electricity bills, which in some cases have doubled. More than 75% of Sweden’s electricity comes from hydropower, nuclear power and wind power, but it has not escaped the energy prices that the war in Ukraine has had across the continent.

Gasoline and food prices have also increased. The price of butter has risen by around 25% this year, meat by 24% and cheese by around 22%, according to consumer price comparison sites.

Shoppers in Matmissions.
Shoppers in Matmissions. Photo: Anna Z EK/Matmissionen

In practice, says Rindevall, 90-95% of purchases are made by members, who can buy up to DKK 300 worth of food per week at the membership price – never more than 30% of the price in a discount supermarket – and as much as they want on top for a higher price. Few members starve, but many cannot afford a balanced diet: lots of carbohydrates, little protein, few vegetables.

He says that Matmissionen’s membership increased from 7,200 in January to more than 14,700 at the end of October. The largest group of immigrants, around 40%, are families with children, both single parents and couples. “Inflation at these rates means we’re seeing many, many more people than ever before. Some are starting to come in saying they don’t qualify for membership but can’t afford to buy the food they need elsewhere,” he says.

According to Sweden’s Central Statistics Office, during the country’s last major period of inflation in the early 1990s, around 7% of the population was in relative poverty – defined as living on 60% of less than the median income. This year, that percentage is estimated to be over 14%.

Matmissionen is preparing expansion plans for new stores across the country. It has recently entered into agreements with both the Swedish Food Traders Association and the National Association of Food Producers and Distributors, guaranteeing support from almost the entire food sector.

“Sweden may still have a good safety net, but it may not be reactive enough to sudden, large living costs,” says Rindevall.

“The only positive thing in all this is that now so many people are talking about impossible food prices that there is no longer the same stigma of not being able to afford to feed your family. It is no longer a taboo.”

This article was amended on 5 December 2022. An earlier version misspelled the Swedish krone (plural: kroner) as “krone”.

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