England is awash with big supermarket chains, along with many smaller chains that offer not-very-good-food in smaller towns and suburbs, often not much more than sweets, crisps, frozen chips and pizza. This has led to the so-called ‘food deserts’ where unless you live in a city or have transport and lots of money to visit a farm shop in the country, you don’t have much good affordable food to choose from. Good food should be for everyone. There are some good options nationwide, so we’ll look at existing ones, along with a few inspirations from abroad. Then if you don’t live nearby, it’s online we go to think out of the box a little! Read up on alternatives to conventional supermarkets.
Although they are convenient, many only offer food to the masses, so if you want to eat locally-grown organic produce, it’s usually not sold here, as most food is controlled by a few big companies, then stored in central distribution houses, before being trucked back to the supermarket (often a ‘local strawberry’ has travelled hundreds of miles in both directions, to land on your shelf). There are issues with plastic waste, decimating local indie shops and not offering choices for people who are vegan or prefer not to eat food made with palm oil.
US food campaigner Michael Pollan says that all major supermarkets are driven by profit, not health. He says a good supermarket should have aisles and aisles of fresh food in the centre of the store. But he is right when he notes that all major supermarkets just have a few aisles of fresh foods on arrival, then the rest of the stores are taken up with high-profit junk food. Low-profit items like porridge are tucked on the bottom shelves, with the sugary cereals at eye level. Milk is often put at the back of the store, so shoppers have to walk right through (discovering other things) on the way. TV ads are designed to infiltrate your subconscious mind while watching them (surveys approaching shoppers ask why people have certain items in their trolleys, and they have no idea!) Michael says that when shopping, you should follow his 64 food rules, which include:
- If your great-grandmother does not understand the ingredients, don’t buy it.
- If it comes from a plant, eat it. If it was made in a plant, don’t!
- Don’t get your fuel from the same place your car does.
- Don’t eat cereals that change the colour of the milk!
Local councils could help, by supporting those that make a difference. Several years ago, Paul Kingsnorth wrote in his book Real England about a battle that went on for years between local people opposing a new Tesco supermarket and the chain itself. He was hopeful that the outcome would be better than it ended up. Although a local businessman offered to build and fund an indie supermarket to give jobs to local people (with cooking classes and all manner of events in-house), the council voted in the supermarket instead. Although Tesco does give money to the local community, this is the problem at source: big supermarkets moving in to finish off local community shops, then trying to give money back. Why not just leave local supermarkets and groceries intact, in the first place? There may be community donations, but most profits of major supermarkets simply go back to the shareholders, not the local community.
One happy story of recent years was in the Birmingham suburb of Bourneville (yes, where the chocolate came from). The town was built by George Quaker, a teetotal religious man who invented drinking chocolate, to try to stop his workers partaking of gin! He looked after his staff, so built a beautiful green town with nice housing, that still stands today. A few years back, Tesco Express applied for a license to sell alcohol just outside the town, and local people (not teetotal but concerned about broken glass litter) opposed it. It went to court, and the outcome seemed sorted. Who could win against Tesco? But win they did – because clever Mr Cadbury (who perhaps envisaged something like this could happen after his death) had wrapped the deeds up in a bundle of headaches for lawyers. Today, the store remains the only one in England that has no alcohol license! It’s not about drinking, it’s about sometimes the good little man winning against the supermarket giants!
Are Supermarkets Really Cheaper?
People think that supermarkets are cheap, but they are not always. Recently the value ranges have shot up in price in some stores, and you may need a car to get to some. People in England spend around 8.7% on groceries (better than Americans at around 6%). But France, Italy and Greece spend almost twice as much food. And which countries are healthier? You got it. That’s because good food is an integral part of life in these countries; they are eating local produce and natural foods over the junk sold here. A lot of people often ask why French women are so healthy and slim. It’s no big secret: they walk everywhere, drink lots of water, and eat foods close to nature (they would never dream of hoovering up giant muffins and donuts, daily bags of chips or giant-sized bags of crisp).
The cheap costs of supermarket food has a high cost elsewhere: a country with millions suffering from heart disease, diabetes and cancer, sometimes as a result of bad food (not always ‘choices’ if someone has no other access to food). Town planners don’t invest in walking paths and public parks near good food shops, but focus more on car parks near out-of-town supermarkets, new roads and skateboarding parks. And lots of junk food is given subsidies by governments out to please their donors. One German supermarket listed the real cost (including environmental and health) next to the price of the foods, and customers were shocked to find meat (factory-farmed or organic) almost doubling their weekly shopping bill. Even milk (which goes up 122%, or 69% from an organic farm).
The answer is to buy organic plant foods that work out cheaper long-term. Waiting for every town to open an indie ethical supermarket will take too long. So if you don’t have one, just change what you buy at the supermarket you’re at. A bowl of porridge oats with local blueberries on top won’t make the major shops the same profit as a box of Frosties. That’s why you find the porridge oats on the bottom shelf – and processed cereals bang-on-eye-level.
The other cost is getting there. You can walk to some supermarkets, but others need a bus or car to get there. Once you arrive, it’s a soul-less experience. If you park in town, you get around 2 hours of parking. So a ‘big shop’, the parking may be free. But if you wanted to go have a coffee at an indie shop later on, it’s likely you’ll miss the limit and get fined. Not a happy day for a stressed out mother with a pram, or an exhausted carer with a relative in a wheelchair, who just wants to have a cup of tea.
Most of us need to use supermarkets, because often there is nowhere else. This is not choice, but a monopoly. Try looking for a natural toothpaste or a natural hair dye in a supermarket, you won’t find one. Big supermarkets also tend to have a knock-on effect of local shops. Not just for food, but for everything. For example, if the big chains move in, who will support the local signwriter? Who likely will visit the local sandwich shop for his lunch, and perhaps drop by for a pint at the local pub, on his way home?
Local supermarkets also tend to know their area well, and treat the planet and animals better. Don’t be fooled that the ‘upmarket’ supermarkets are always more ethical. You can often better plant-based affordable foods in Aldi than M & S. And Waitrose recently had injured pigs killed at the roadside after a lorry accident (so they could keep their profits), rather than heed to calls to put them to sleep peacefully, and send the rest to a sanctuary, after such a truma.
The big supermarkets also try to make us buy more, hence the bright colours, loud music, lack of windows and no clocks. Why do you think McDonald’s is red and yellow? Because if a supermarket was designed like your typical zero waste shop (all natural textures, peaceful and no pressure), you would likely only buy what you need. Instead, it’s in the supermarket interest to make people feel stressed, and to try to get you to buy sweets for hyperactive screaming children, at the checkout.
There is no way of knowing if the organic vegetables I bought today were grown without pesticides. But I trust that they were. When I order gluten-free bread for a friend, I trust my baker has used the right flour. I believe the chocolate inside the bar labelled ‘fair trade’ is ethically produced. Every day we rely on millions of people we’ve never met to tell the truth and do the right thing. And they do. Our culture and our society depend on us expecting the good. And we do. Berndaette Jiwa