Food That's Past Its Prime Is at Heart of Grocery Store for Struggling Swedes

Thanks to rising income inequality, a 'social supermarket' in Stockholm will sell items that have reached or exceeded their sell-by dates.

(Photo: Ric Frazier/Getty Images)

Jun 23, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Although Sweden might sometimes seem like social nirvana—moms there receive an impressive 420 days of paid maternity leave—thanks to growing income inequality, the number of financially struggling residents is soaring. Yet, grocery stores in Sweden operate in much the same way as retailers in other parts of the globe: If food has reached or exceeded its sell-by-date, it's thrown in a Dumpster.

Now a Swedish nonprofit, Stockholm City Mission, hopes to eliminate food waste while reducing the number of folks going to bed hungry at night. Late last week the organization announced plans to open Sweden’s first “social supermarket.” Instead of operating like a charitable food pantry where people have to take whatever items they're given, the market will sell groceries at a 30 percent discount to residents who receive income support from the government but still need a helping hand.

The food, which will be donated by several Swedish grocery chains, will be items that store employees pull from shelves because the sell-by date has passed. After all, in most cases a box of cereal or a can of soup that’s a few days past that date is still safe to consume.

"We have long pondered how we can take advantage of all offers of food gifts that we receive and how to share them with people living in poverty in a dignified manner. With this model, we have found a successful path," Maria Markovits, director of Stockholm City Mission, said in a statement.

So, Why Should You Care? According to the charity, 622,000 tons of edible food are chucked in the garbage in Sweden every year. Swedes aren't the only ones with wasteful habits. Americans trash about half of all food, and one-third of the food produced worldwide ends up in garbage bins each year. Meanwhile, according to the World Food Program, a staggering 805 million people around the globe are hungry, including the 20 percent of American kids who go to sleep at night with growling bellies.

America's massive food waste and hunger problems are what prompted former Trader Joe's executive Doug Rauch to open Daily Table, a Boston grocery store whose model is slightly similar to that of Stockholm City Mission. The store, which opened for business in early June, offers food that's past its sell-by date, along with ready-to-eat items. Some activists in the Boston area have pushed back against the store, saying that impoverished people shouldn't have to eat food that wealthier people would turn their noses up at. But Rauch believes Americans as a whole need to recognize that "sell-by dates are not expiration dates."

RELATED: With This Bio-Reactive Food Label, Sell-by Dates Could Become Obsolete

So far that kind of criticism has yet to dog this Swedish grocery. One key difference between the Stockholm market and the Boston initiative seems to be who can access it. In Boston, to ensure folks buying items at Daily Table are from low-income homes, customers can only be residents of certain zip codes. Meanwhile, to avoid stigmatizing financially struggling residents, the general population in Stockholm will be welcome to shop at the store, as long as its willing to pay full price for items. The message seems to be that everyone in the Scandinavian city should be reducing food waste and buying the past-their-prime groceries.

Offering discounted items to lower-income residents, whether they're in Boston or in Stockholm, doesn't solve the root problem of income inequality. However, enabling people to eat while also reducing the amount of food thrown in trash receptacles seems like it might be a win-win.