‘Sweden has a poverty problem’: Social stores offer food at bargain prices

PA plump and prosperous Sweden, with its reputedly generous welfare system and abundance of green energy, should – in theory – be better equipped than most European countries to withstand the blows of the cost of living crisis on the continent.

In terms of GDP per capita, it is the fifth richest member state in the EU. Natural gas accounts for just 2% of its energy, isolating it from the worst economic ravages of Russia’s war on Ukraine. Poverty is well below the European average.

But rapidly rising electricity bills and soaring food prices are wreaking havoc here as elsewhere. “Sweden also has a poverty problem,” said Johan Rindevall. “We may not talk about it much, but it’s there – and it’s absolutely worse this year.”

Rindevall is well placed to know this. The 39-year-old former tech industry worker runs Matmissionen, or Food Mission, a unique chain of social supermarkets in Sweden that has grown rapidly since January, more than doubling the number of its customers as it offers means-tested members the opportunity to buy food for less.

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

Matmissionen’s eight stores – five in Stockholm, three of which opened this year, two in Gothenburg and one in Malmö – sell food donated by growers and retailers that is at risk of being wasted, usually because of defects cosmetics, damaged packaging or shorting the expiration date.

The objective of the association is threefold: to limit food waste, to train newcomers – around 70% of the workforce follow various professional integration programs, and 40% have access to full-time employment – ​​and above all to sell food. at very low prices to people who need it. Proceeds from the stores also help subsidize a separate food bank operation with donations distributed to NGOs working with those most in need, primarily the homeless.

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

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

This is an increasingly sought-after offer. 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 were also affected by electricity bills which sometimes doubled. More than 75% of Sweden’s electricity comes from hydro, nuclear and wind, but it has not escaped the repercussions of the war in Ukraine on energy prices worldwide. from the continent.

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

Buyers at Matmissions.
Buyers at Matmissions. Photo: Anna ZEK/Matmissionen

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

He says Matmissionen’s membership has grown from 7,200 in January to more than 14,700 by the end of October. The largest group of newcomers, around 40%, are families with children, both single parents and couples. “Inflation at these rates means we are seeing many, many more people than ever before. Some have started coming in saying they don’t qualify as members, but they can’t afford it. to buy the food they need elsewhere,” he says.

According to Sweden’s Central Statistical Office, during the country’s last major inflationary period in the early 1990s, around 7% of the population lived in relative poverty – defined as living on 60% or less of income. median. This year, this percentage is estimated at more than 14%.

Matmissionen is drawing up expansion plans for new stores across the country. It has recently reached agreements with the Swedish Association of Food Retailers and the National Federation of Food Producers and Distributors, ensuring support from almost the entire food sector.

“Sweden may still have a good safety net, but it may not be responsive enough to sudden and large changes in the cost of living,” says Rindevall.

“The one positive thing about all of 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 last modified on December 5, 2022. An earlier version misspelled the Swedish krona (plural: crown) as “crown”.

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