Community markets that sell food, household items and offer community-led services at subsidised rates could be a sustainable and popular complementary solution to existing food support programmes, a new study has found.
They could also support over-subscribed foodbanks which struggle to meet demand.
People on low incomes who shop at community markets told researchers at Bournemouth University that as well as being able to buy food at affordable prices, they also felt a greater sense of community and did not experience a loss of dignity which can come from using foodbanks.
The study has been published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems.
Where in the UK, foodbanks provide pre-prepared parcels of food for free to those most in need, community markets are not means tested and provide a choice of food – as well as other items such as school uniforms and toiletries – to everyone living in the local community, including those on high incomes. They also act as a community hub, offering organised group activities for local residents to take part in.
The Bournemouth researchers carried out a series of interviews with management, staff and volunteers of community markets. They also spoke to people who have used foodbanks and community markets, and food donors, to compare their experiences of the two models.
“Foodbanks have provided a great deal of support for low-income families during the cost-of-living crisis but our research has found they are not sustainable in the long run,” explained Dr Rounaq Nayak, Lecturer in Sustainability at Bournemouth University who led the study. “They rely heavily on donations but with rising food prices, donors themselves said they were struggling to buy that extra can of beans and other items, so they are donating less,” they added.
Community markets do not solely rely on donations from the public or businesses, they also pay a subscription to charity networks such as FareShare. These charities then provide items in bulk which are sold at a subsidised rate at the market.
“This is where community markets have the advantage,” explained Dr Nayak. “The products and services are sold at subsidised prices and all revenue from sales are reinvested to pay for future bulk purchases from and memberships to the food distribution charities. This is a much more sustainable model and the beneficiaries told us that they liked being able to choose their own food items, as opposed to receiving a pre-packed parcel which made them feel a loss of dignity,” they continued.
However, the researchers point out that relying on FareShare does still have challenges. Firstly, inflation has affected the amount of food FareShare can provide to community markets and other subscribers. Secondly, organisations must be able to afford the membership over sustained periods of time, and thirdly food distribution is based on weight so heavier items like a large papaya may go unselected, creating food waste.
Beneficiaries remarked that foodbank parcels – by necessity - were mostly made up of dried, tinned and processed foods, whereas they liked having a choice of fresh and frozen food items, including meat, at community markets.
“Another advantage of community markets which makes them more sustainable is that they can be used by people from all across the community, including those on a higher income,” said Dr Nayak. “People who were more well-off told us that they still wanted to shop at the markets because they felt they were giving back to the community by spending their money there to be reinvested in the programme.”
Participants in the study also advised that the markets provide a sense of social cohesion and helped to tackle wellbeing issues such as loneliness, particularly through availability of activities such as cooking, yoga, drumming and gardening classes.
Dr Nayak said, “Many participants told us that this gave them a chance to meet other people and socialise which was good for their mental health. They also advised that this contrasted with how foodbanks operate, where donations and made in the morning and beneficiaries come in the evening and they do not get the same social interactions.”
The researchers conclude that more development and support for community markets, and a better understanding of alternative food support mechanisms available in the UK from policy makers could provide a sustainable solution for those struggling to keep up with rising food prices, allowing individuals to maintain their dignity and benefit society by bringing communities together to support each other.
The study “The future of charitable alternative food networks in the UK: an investigation into current challenges and opportunities for foodbanks and community markets” has been published in Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems with DOI https://doi.org/10.3389/fsufs.2023.1187015