The Supermarket With Free Food

A new Dutch supermarket gives away food to those who prove they can’t afford it.

ROTTERDAM, The Netherlands — As a tram takes you from central Rotterdam to Rotterdam-South the scenery changes from the imposing cityscape of a thriving metropolis to the grimy social housing of one of the poorest areas in the Netherlands.

This is where the Swingmarket decided to open its flagship store, a very Dutch experiment of the sort that might catch on elsewhere in Europe, or even in the United States. Certainly it’s the sort of thing a social activist like U.S. presidential candidate Bernie Sanders could learn to love. Because in this supermarket, if you need it, food is free.

“Hello, love, how are you today?” says Marij de Ronde. An icy wind sweeps in the automatic doors at the entrance of the mall, but Ronde is always nearby, on call, and ready to explain the basic concept.

This supermarket is for everybody, she says. It’s not a soup kitchen or a dollar store. “Fruit, vegetables and bread are free, everything marked with orange dots is free, the rest is sold,” de Ronde explains. Those with limited incomes “can shop with a free card supplied by us, and you,” she says pointing at The Daily Beast reporter, “with your ordinary credit card, you can pay the rent.”

There are many versions of free to almost-free stores around the world; from dollar stores in the United States to British Community Shops or the brand new easyFoodstores in the United Kingdom.

But Swingmarket is not a money-making enterprise, and it's not a dumping ground for cheap Chinese odds and ends.

The Rotterdam-South neighborhood, where Swingmarket opened its doors on Dec. 1, 2015, is the second-poorest neighborhood in the Netherlands. It was declared a potential risk to public safety by the Dutch public prosecutor and chief of police. There had been “disturbances of the public order and the presence of [fire]arms.” This amid mounting fears about new immigrants—there were huge protests here when plans were announced to resettle 600 recent migrants in the neighborhood—and every country in Europe is concerned about radicalization of marginalized populations.

But the Swingmarket project began, in fact, out of concern for schoolchildren.

“We simply have to make sure there is an unlimited amount of bread for the kids, that's how it all started,” says Jacob Meinardi, of the Met Zuid Foundation that runs the market. “Schools were telling us the kids are getting to school hungry.”Many children in this area go without breakfast at home. Fruit, vegetables, and bread are goods some people around here simply can’t afford, and the charitable food banks in the area were short on supplies.

So Meinardi started contacting fruit and vegetable wholesalers. In Europe, an average of 300 million tons of food are thrown away each year. In the Netherlands alone farms and companies waste a disturbing 4 to 5 billion euros worth of food each year. Selling it for a lower price would “spoil” the market, so the surplus is callously discarded.

Meinardi tapped into that mega surplus for the food banks. “To my great surprise, after only a few days, we had deals delivering us over 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds) of stock a week. The food banks came to pick up what they could and the rest we handed out on the streets.”

Thus began the idea of a more organized distribution system that would allow people to maintain a bit more pride as well as a healthier diet. Shopping at a supermarket, including this one, does not carry the same kind of stigma as lining up at a food bank.

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Life in this part of town is tough, and it's not getting any easier. This is a face of the Netherlands rarely seen by outsiders, who may have the impression “Dutch” and “poverty” are a contradiction in terms. But the fabric of the once so exemplary Dutch social system has been eroding for years and poverty is tearing its seams. In Rotterdam-South this is just a fact of life.

“These doors are not just open for the unemployed. Anyone can come to us,” de Ronde says. “People with regular jobs and huge debts are welcome, too, but if you drive a car, for instance, you need to prove to us you can't get to work without it. If people have debts that need to be paid off, we set up targets with them, we back them all the way through.”

People are referred to the Swingmarket by police, social services, and other welfare organizations. The Met Zuid Foundation looks at someone’s entire budget: income, utility bills, insurance, bank statements, and debts. What is left determines if someone is eligible for that special Swingmarket credit card.

“We give people below a certain income a ‘gold-card’ with fictitious money,” de Ronde explains. “They can shop here with it here.” Anyone having €180 [$200] or less to spend on groceries a month fits that profile. The composition of a family determines how much credit will be on the card. A single unemployed mother with two kids, for instance, will get €40 a month in addition to the free staple foods. Since most products in the store go for under €2, that money can go a long way.

According to Meinardi, there has been interest in the project from all over the Netherlands, not least from the Dutch government. But Swingmarket is not looking for state funding. On the contrary. “If you accept money from government it will demand things back from you, like data, for instance.”

“We prefer to remain independent,” Meinardi says. “That’s why we combine free food with selling products like a regular store. If one kilo of potatoes is sold, I can give one kilo away.”

Swingmarket is not Met Zuid's first venture. “We’ve been running a farm for six years, working with volunteers,” says Meinardi. “We’re experienced, we know what to expect. We don’t give up.”

They’re also practical. “First we ran a pilot store, for 14 months in another location, very low profile,” says Meinardi. “This, this is our second store.”

Although the market has its own vetting procedures, part of the point is to make healthy food easier to come by for people who might not fit easily into a government-regulated niche.

“It can happen to you too, you know,” says de Ronde. Relative prosperity can become relative, or even dire, poverty almost overnight. “Last week a student contacted me because she can’t make ends meet. She can’t get food from the food bank because she’s a student and is told to simply apply for another loan.”

This kind of bureaucratic approach infuriates de Ronde. “What kind of BS is that?” she asks. “It is so difficult to get rid of loans, most people can’t afford to pay more than the interest on them. Why throw someone under the bus like that?”

All the fruit and vegetables boxes are marked with an orange sticker once the buy-in price is matched. After that they become free for Swingmarket card holders, and reasonable bargains for everyone else. It is a practical way to make sure the expenses are always met. “We had 2,900 paying customers last week,” says de Ronde. If that pattern holds up, it should amply cover the rent.

Being in this neighborhood also means plenty of people asking for a job, but all of Swing's employees are volunteers. “What does it pay? They ask me,” de Ronde says, setting up her chipper punchline. “You get at least 500 smiles each day...and a cup of coffee, I tell them.”

As far as expenses go, that just leaves the electricity bill. To keep costs down, there is no heating on in the store. De Ronde looks up, amused: “I can see you aren't dressed for the occasion. We come prepared, we all wear several layers of clothes here.”

While most comes from wholesalers, some of the store’s stock is donated by supermarkets or other stores, and those goods can’t be sold for any amount of money to anyone.

“Don’t even think about paying for that can!” de Ronde snaps as an elderly gentleman approaches the checkout counter. “You can give it to him,” she tells the person at the register. “There is enough, take a lovely can of pineapple,” she says to the gentleman. “You are not allowed to pay for it! It was given to us on condition that it wouldn’t be sold,” de Ronde explains.

The old man smiles. As he passes her on his way out he says, “I put some change in the kitty, that’s allowed, isn’t it?”