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Auderghem Social Grocery

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In Belgium, when temperatures drop more than 1.7 million people must choose between clothing, warmth and food. To help them cope with this situation, Red Cross volunteers provide assistance through what has become one of the largest social grocery network in French-speaking Belgium. Social groceries provide food and everyday products to people in need of financial support, and charge only half-price in return. Thanks to these grocery stores, customers can increase their purchasing power, while accessing fresh and high-quality products. We visited the Auderghem social grocery, where we spoke to Mayi Mukuna, Food Aid Officer at the Belgian Red Cross (French-speaking community) to find out more about this important work.

Mayi, can you give us an idea of the kinds of people that visit the grocery?

Mostly, the customers are single parents, and in this particular shop, students and elderly people. Some social groceries also welcome people with debt problems, freelancers with low revenues, or individuals with no income at all. Usually, they are sent here by a public authority or service, namely the “Centre Public d'Action Sociale” (CPAS) (Public Centre for Social Action). That’s the local welfare institution that provides various social services to people in need, as well as the access cards required to visit social groceries. This access card is valid for 6 months and can be renewed three times, so people can use it for a maximum of two years in total.

The idea is that our food assistance serves to support people for a short while and helps them to get back on their feet, until they don’t need us anymore. For the most part, these people are beneficiaries of the “Revenue d’Integration Sociale” (Social Integration Revenue), which means that the criteria for them to receive an access card is defined by the CPAS/local public authority. On our part, we do not ask any questions.

How do people benefit from social groceries? What makes these places different from ordinary shops?

Social groceries are shops with two main particularities. Firstly, they target a specific group: in this case, people who are facing financial difficulty or are at risk of poverty and social exclusion. These people are selected by CPAS following an assessment by a social worker. We provide a 50% discount to the people who shop here. The Red Cross buys the products and sells them for half of the market price. The rest of the cost is covered by the local Red Cross branch, or in some cases, the partner institution.

The second particularity of social shops is their community-building component. The aim is to welcome people to a warm environment. There is always a small corner where visitors can sit and have a tea or coffee and talk to the volunteers if they want to. For us, it’s really important that they feel secure and comfortable here. Volunteers can also provide orientation to people coming in, so they know which services exist beyond food aid in their municipality. The goal is to help them and give advice on using these services.

Mayi Mukuna of the Belgian Red Cross explains how social groceries help people at risk of poverty and social exclusion, Brussels, November 2018. © Red Cross EU Office

It sounds like community-building is on the forefront of the priorities of these shops

Exactly. The philosophy behind the social groceries is to provide not only a way for people to be able to eat, but also a space where they feel welcome and can open doors to all kinds of social services. Our goal is to give them an inviting welcome and provide a safe place where they’re not going to be judged or made to feel like they have less than anyone else.

How many social grocery shops are there in Belgium?

In the French-speaking part of Belgium, Wallonie-Bruxelles, there are around 100 social groceries – 42 of them are Red Cross shops. That’s just under half of them, so we are a big actor in the social grocery field. This shop serves around 200 families, so approximately 400 people in the Auderghem area.

What makes the Auderghem social grocery different from other similar shops?

I think that one of the main differences here is that we offer a lot of loose foods (ie: unpackaged and sold by weight). There’s plenty of it, the quality is high, and products are really cheap. Also, we have lots of organic products, which is uncommon for social groceries. There’s a lot of unsold food from supermarkets in the neighborhood, so people have the chance to get fresh produce for free, or for a small fee. For every 5 euros spent in the grocery, they can receive an additional box of fruit and vegetables for free. Shop visitors really get their money’s worth here, and that’s something we want to develop in other social groceries too: to make sure that fresh fruit and vegetables are available. This circular economy attitude reduces waste and helps us to provide healthy food for people who need it.

Visitors of the shop can get healthy foods in the quantities that they need, Brussels, November 2018. ©  Red Cross EU Office

It seems that oftentimes, healthy options are overlooked when it comes to food aid

Yes, and in some places, we still need to improve the quality of the food we give. Often, it is only non-perishable foods that are not diverse in nature. This is something we’re trying to change. We want to provide access to healthy and high-quality food.

What is the feedback you receive from the people who come here?

Volunteers working here say that people are very happy. They really feel like they are in a regular shop. Often, the places they go to are dark and unwelcoming and only offer a few products. Here, there is a wide variety of items, and the company of volunteers who try to assist and answer any questions. The concept of loose foods is also quite original. Sometimes, visitors don’t know what it is because they are not used to this way of shopping, but it makes them happy to have the freedom to buy the quantities they need.

The Auderghem social grocery team offers help and useful information to visitors, Brussels, November 2018. © Red Cross EU Office