Tackling poverty and waste, new Helsinki supermarket offers surplus food at discount prices

The new WeFood store sells groceries at 30% to 50% discount, to reduce food waste and offer cheaper alternatives.

Box of fruit and vegetables / Credit: WeFood Instagram

More than 400 million kilos of edible food is thrown away every year in Finland, even as campaigners say there’s still too much food poverty among low income Finns.

Now a new supermarket – the first of its kind in the country – has opened in Helsinki, to sell surplus food at discount prices, aiming to help people who struggle to pay for their own groceries. At the same time it’s fighting food waste and helping reduce its impact on the environment.

The WeFood store sits slightly at odds with its surroundings in the brand new up-market Redi shopping centre. Based on a Danish model, it’s jointly run with Finn Church Aid, and as well as tackling food poverty it has ambitious sustainable development goals.

Staffed mainly by volunteers, WeFood takes donations from partner supermarkets and manufacturers of goods that can no longer be sold on supermarket shelves. The packaging may be damaged or incorrectly labeled, the fruit and veggies might not be the prettiest or shiniest, but everything can still be consumed.

And at 30% to 50% off normal prices it represents something of a bargain.

File picture of WeFood bags / Credit: WeFood Instagram

Jouni Hemberg, the Executive Director of Finn Church Aid, says that yes, some people might come looking just for a bargain, but there’s a bigger message to take away from the new venture. 

“I think it does not really matter why people are here, as long as we can work against climate change and other issues as well as sharing information” he says.

“We hope this project will be the start of something new in this area, not only for us, but by others too” Hemberg tells News Now Finland.

While the food items are donated for free, any profits go towards Finn Church Aid’s development work which aims to help projects that tackle climate chance and reduce food waste globally.

Stocking the shelves

The WeFood working model is to keep products flying off the shelves, so nothing can spoil. That means the selection of foods on offer can change daily, depending on the donations they receive.

“If you’ll come back here next week, the goods may have changed completely” says Hemberg.

Learning lessons from the first WeFood store in Denmark, which launched in 2016, the Kalasatama branch tries to keep some staple foods in stock.

“We will make sure that there are always greens and bread available, these are the goods that are in most demand, at least in Denmark, and bringing the customers here” Hemberg explains.

As the popularity of the original store grew, two new Danish WeFood supermarkets have opened, and the concept has potential for expansion in Finland as well.

Credit: WeFood Instagram

Finland’s grocery store waste problem

Finnish supermarkets alone account for at least 80 million kilos of edible food waste every year, and added to all the other sectors in the food industry chain – from manufacturing to commercial restaurants – experts say there’s a problem with the whole process.

But even one individual consumer can make a difference.

“Grocery stores alone are wasting at least 70 million kilos of edible food a year, and added to this all the other sectors of the food chain, this has a lot to do with the whole food supply chain” says Juha-Matti Katajajuuri, Senior Scientist at Natural Resources Institute Finland Luke.

“If people are for example willing to buy highly processed steaks, which might increase food waste in the processing industry, rather than raw meat, then processed steaks will be produced and shelves of stores will be filled up” he explains.

Statistics from Luke show that almost 90% of food waste in Finland is generated by four main sectors:

  • Food production 20%
  • Grocery stores 18%
  • Restaurants 20%
  • Households 30%

As the overall number of households, as well as quality of life, have increased significantly over the last few decades, so has the amount of food waste Finns create.

Finnish households throw away the equivalent of 20kg of edible food per person each year.

So where does all the waste come from?

A report from the Natural Resources Institute Finland finds that food surplus is frequently a result of poorly planned food useage; busy schedules which make it difficult to use up food; leftovers which never get eaten and a lack of common sense about when food is still perfectly good to eat.

“Understanding the value of food and how the production affects the environment may have been lost among households as incomes and standards of living have grown” says researcher Juha-Matti Katajajuuri.

Finnish food poverty

This week the Finnish government pledged to reduce global hunger, as Minister for Foreign Trade and Development Anne-Mari Virolainen signed a donation of €32m towards World Food Programme projects. 

But here at home in Finland food poverty is still a serious issue.

In 2016 some 11.8% of Finns – or 637,000 people – were living below the poverty line according to Statistics Finland. That share has been climbing since 1993 when only 7.2% of Finns lived below the poverty line.

For several decades, one food aid organisation has been at the forefront of helping people who live with food poverty.

In east Helsinki, Heikki Hursti has been running a food bank as head of his family’s charity since 2005. Every week thousands of local residents queue up in the street for free handouts.

“When I started in this position, there were about 300 people daily in the line waiting for food aid, today the number is something 3000” says Hursti. 

There’s been an increase too in the number of aid groups on the scene to help combat poverty in Helsinki with surplus food and other donations. But Hursti also see the complexity in the equation of poverty and rising food waste.

“The situation is for sure complicated, but that is what we’re trying to fix, with new and old partners in the scene” Hursti comments. 

The new WeFood store in Helsinki, on opening day 20th September 2018 / Credit: WeFood Instagram

Circular economy tackling food waste 

Finland’s food waste epidemic has provided new kinds of business, entrepreneurial and charity initiatives. Like apps that let restaurants sell their surplus food at the end of meal service; or supermarkets that can let shoppers know what foods are on special offer to help them manage their own inventories.

These local initiatives are welcome, and vital, but the European Union wants to tackle the issue of food waste on a much bigger scale, but cutting it in half by 2030, and making all the waste a resource by 2020.

The primary goal of the circular economy in the food system is to prevent waste in all parts of the food chain. And this can have a big impact for the environment as well, as food waste will be recycled as biofuel, for the cosmetics industry, or for agricultural fertilizer instead of just being thrown away as garbage.

But the scale of the problem is huge in Finland alone, and the task of tackling it on a Europe-wide scale will take a lot of effort at all levels of society.

“The amount of annual discarded food in Finland is equivalent, in terms of climate impact, to the emissions of around 400,000 cars a year in Finland alone” warns scientist Juha-Matti Katajajuuri.