Jade Martin prepares her shopping at the Blackthorne Food club, Northampton. 19/10/18 Photo Tom Pilston.
A woman prepares her shopping at the Blackthorne food club in Northampton © Tom Pilston/FT

Louise Tibble, a mother of four who works in a hotel on a zero-hours contract, said she earned just £250 in the last month.

For the 32-year-old Briton and her partner, who works full time in a garage, “our money does not always cover the week’s essentials”, she added.

So Mrs Tibble has come to a so-called social supermarket close to her Northampton home to buy a £7.50 box of food that has been donated by local wholesalers and community fundraisers and would cost about £40 in high street shops.

Social supermarkets like the one in Northampton’s Blackthorn district have sprung up across the UK since 2013 to cater for people who have some money to spend — but not enough. These sites, often run by charities and selling deeply discounted food and other essentials, are popular with low income families affected by insecure working arrangements as well as years of austerity-driven public spending cuts, notably to welfare benefits.

It is an issue confronting chancellor Philip Hammond as he prepares to deliver his Budget on Monday, not least because prime minister Theresa May this month pledged to bring an end to austerity. The pressure is mounting on Mr Hammond to increase spending — including on welfare — because the public finances are in markedly better shape than previously thought.

In Britain, despite high levels of employment, hunger and poverty have become widespread.

UN estimates 8.4m Britons suffer food insecurity

The number of adults and children who are in working households grappling with poverty rose by 1m to 8.3m people during the three years to March 2017, according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, a charity. The UN meanwhile estimates 8.4m Britons are living in food insecurity.

At first glance, Northampton’s Blackthorn district does not seem an obvious location for a social supermarket: the terraced homes suggest a social housing success story rather than a place of hunger. But the town’s status as a logistics hub in central England makes it flush with low paid warehouse workers.

Founder Tim Bedward at the Blackthorne Food club, Northampton. 19/10/18 Photo Tom Pilston.
Tim Bedward: 'Over half of the people who come to us for food are in work' © Tom Pilston/FT

“I’d say that over half of the people who come to us for food are in work,” said Tim Bedward, a retired sales manager who volunteers at three of the five social supermarkets that the Northampton Hope, a charity, runs across the town. “But they are low paid jobs or insecure, zero hours jobs. There’s just a lack of comfort in peoples’ lives.”

Part of the appeal of social supermarkets is that they are not food banks, which hand out essentials for free to people in crisis. Shoppers at the supermarkets pay nominal amounts for donated food and other essentials.

“This is not a food bank . . . as we are giving some money back,” said Nicole Wallis, a catering worker who uses the Blackthorn social supermarket.

Churches and community centres host stores

Emma Lewell-Buck, the Labour MP for South Shields and a campaigner on food insecurity, blamed the rise of social supermarkets and food banks on “insecure work and a dereliction of welfare”.

There is no data on the number of social supermarkets in the UK, although interviews with leaders in the sector suggest there could soon be more than 100.

Researchers at Coventry University identified 23 supermarkets in a June study, but there are likely to be many more operating quietly out of churches and community centres across Britain.

Laura Jones, who manages Your Local Pantry, a social supermarkets network in Stockport, said she has counted 25 in Greater Manchester, including the five she oversees.

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Her organisation, having received inquiries from charities as far afield as Thame and Falkirk, has plans to open or help to launch 50 more supermarkets in the next few years. “We just can’t really keep up with the demand,” said Ms Jones. “The idea is so popular.”

Adam Corlett, analyst at the Resolution Foundation, a think-tank, said low-income and out-of-work Britons were becoming worse off because of welfare cuts since 2012. From 2016, payments of tax credits and child benefit stopped being increased in line with inflation, in a move that will cost low-income families £580 a year by 2019, he estimated.

Universal credit is cutting incomes

Universal credit, the government’s troubled welfare overhaul that combines various benefits into a single monthly payment and is being rolled out nationwide, has cut the income of working households eligible for benefits by £1,600 a year on average, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, another think-tank.

The national living wage has increased to £7.83 an hour for the over-25s, from £7.20 when it was introduced in 2016, but this income boost has “been offset by the large scale of the benefit cuts”, said Mr Corlett.

It is not only working families who rely on social supermarkets — the unemployed are also frequent users.

Ms Jones said that in Stockport between 10 and 23 per cent of the supermarket users were employed, depending on the site. This fits with data from Community Shop, which runs four social supermarkets in Yorkshire and London — it said 22 per cent of its users were working.

But at the Blackthorn social supermarket in Northampton, it is often low paid workers who are looking for bargains.

“I work full time, but I have five kids, and I just can’t feed them all,” said a man who described himself as a security guard. As he left the site, with three bags stuffed to the brim with groceries, he added: “At least this will keep them all going for a bit.”

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