As an irredeemable chocoholic, addicted to the world’s most widely consumed psychoactive drug, the annual ‘what shall I give up for Lent’ is a bit of spiritual discipline that requires more serious thought that simply denying myself a fix of Montezuma’s dark chocolate. And in any case God does not want me to be unhappy. Some say we should ‘take on’ rather than ‘give up’. Well I’ve tried that and took up vegetable and fruit-growing one year and it was an unmitigated disaster of botrytis, blight, greenfly, slug invasion and avian robbery.
So my choice this year was a bit of both. Give up supermarkets and take on independent local shops. By supermarkets I mean the Big Four, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and the Co-op. It is not so much their size that troubles me, but their business model. Brighton now has a hiSbe – standing for ‘how it should be’ and on the continent there are Social Supermarkets. I fully expect commercially sustainable social enterprises will emerge out of the proliferation of foodbanks as the austerity years and general feeling of being fed being ripped-off by the Big Four, make people look round for alternatives.
I have been giving up supermarkets gradually for a number of years. Tesco infuriated me when they almost doubled the size of their store in my local town of Inverurie and the last straw was their introduction of self-service tills that have psychologically scarred me for life after an embarrassing incident. I tried Morrisons for a time as they stocked some good quality organic good and locally produced lamb and beef, until that is I discovered that ‘locally’ meant sourced from one of the biggest abattoirs in the country at Turriff that takes animals from as far south as Peterborough. I have two small Co-op self- service stores in my village but the Co-op is a fallen angel. Selling three bottles of wine for a tenner, to their tag line of ‘good with food’ is not the sign of an ethical grocer.
That supermarkets are cheap, convenient and offer choice is a widely held but false belief and many are now turning away. Aldi and Lidl are undercutting them on price and close analysis of the majority of goods the Big Four offer come from a handful of industrial scale suppliers. The ‘horsemeat’ scandal of last year debunked the supply chain policy that was found to be not worth the paper it was written on. And the Big Four proved susceptible to the pro-GM agribusinesses’ propaganda that non-GM feed supply is drying up. It did not take me long to check with the Association of Soy Producers of Brazil, the world’s largest producer of GMO-free soy beans, to disprove the pro-GM pressure.
I suppose I am fortunate that my village has, apart from the afore-mentioned Co-op stores, a Costcutter store (different business model), two butchers, a baker and a chemist that now sells a small range of whole foods, the source of my Montezuma organic Easter Egg, as well as some eco-cleaning products. Once a week I go to Inverurie for an hour’s shopping which has become a pleasure.
Starting with The Green Grocer, who supplies a veg-box for collection or delivery, an astonishing range of whole foods and local dairy and butchery products, teas and coffees and organic processed foods, as well as their own cold pressed locally grown virgin rapeseed oil. An award-winning butcher Davidson’s also sells vegetables and fish, though I buy my fish from the ‘fish lady’ who parks her van near my house and is good for a gossip. Moving down the High Street, I call into The Kilted Frog for his cheeses, pastries and a cafe that rocks. And finally there is Mitchell’s Dairy where I can complete the gaps in my shopping list.
Each month a farmers’ market comes to Inverurie and, as I am out and about in Aberdeenshire quite a lot, I am collating a list of delicatessens, food emporiums and country stores selling local food and choice delicacies if I am feeling extravagant. And this is the thing. My expenditure on food and other household essentials is within 10% of what it was with my supermarket weekly shop. Now I know that my pattern of shopping would not meet the needs of a busy family, and I am in an advantageous financial position but often, when I have watched the ‘family’ shop being loaded on to the conveyor belt, I have noted how much of it was processed, packaged goods, end-of-aisle temptations succumbed to and BOGOFs.
So ‘how should it be’? Is it too much of a stretch of the imagination and pre-shopping preparation to support ethically produced food, from sustainable fairly traded sources, that will not end up as waste (30-50% of food for human consumption globally is wasted). If a growing number of successful businesses can make themselves more transparent about every product they sell and accept responsibility for dealing fairly with their suppliers, and there is no one more accountable than the shopkeeper you can engage in conversation with about what they sell, why can this not become a universal model?
Oh and by the way, I am resurrecting my plans for a ‘grow your own’ plot.