Supermarkets are the epitome of capitalism, institutionalising consumers, pushing prices down to the detriment of small producers, reducing quality, stifling innovation … the list of crimes against food culture is endless. (See my blog a couple of years ago on what the supermarket model has done to book publishing.)
But consumers need convenience, not just lower prices and wider choice.
We now know there’s a climate emergency taking place. We’re picking over the bones of humanity’s legacy, and even the most optimistic scientific projections show that we aren’t going to save the planet without some serious lifestyle changes. Wholesale. Literally, everyone in the West. Right now. Or by 2050, we could be looking at a world where only pockets of rich people have survived. And no, this isn’t hyperbole.
So, how do you make a lifestyle change without it getting in the way of your actual life? I have an idea …
Capitalism gets a bad rap, but it’s not because people shouldn’t make money. No-one thinks that! The problem comes when money is made in the destruction of the planet, people’s lives, their livelihoods, animal welfare … you name it, capitalism’s right at the front with its whip of fire, burning everything in its path.
Supermarkets are right up there with all the evils that make capitalism the functioning scourge of the planet. The endless, pointless plastic packaging, the zero hours contracts, the ever cheaper mystery meat products. (You can bet, when the US deals are finally struck in the wake of a Tory Brexit, supermarkets will be the first to sell chlorinated chicken).
Do you know where else you can buy most of the products you’d normally get from the supermarket?
In Cumbria, in smaller towns, market halls are often quiet these days, but in big towns like Huddersfield, Carlisle and Blackburn, those places are huge and still busy.
Range of products
Most market halls have at least one fresh fruit and veg stall, at least one deli and dairy stall, and some even have a butcher. You can usually also find a grocer selling condiments, tinned goods and the all-important Worcestershire sauce. Their overheads are cheaper and their products come from wholesalers, so they’re often almost as cheap as supermarkets. Fruit and veg is usually less expensive than supermarket produce, and it’s genuinely fresh, rather than being zipped up tight in gas-filled plastic.
Why do supermarkets use so much plastic packaging? Simple! It does three main jobs. It makes portions possible without having to employ a human being to do it, so that customers can just grab a product and throw it in their trolley. It keeps the product free of unwanted bacterias and dirt. And it ensures the product lasts a little longer. At market halls, packaging tends to be paper-based or as-you-need, and you can take your own, no questions asked.
You don’t have a trolley, so you can only buy what you can carry to the car. It’s amazing how much food for a week you can get together like that, and there’s nothing to stop you making a couple of trips, because the parking is often attached to the building. If you have a large family, with hordes of teenagers …. take them with you to carry more stuff!
Sure, most council parking is Pay & Display, but with enough people using the markets more often, we could see a climb down over parking prices.
It keeps the money local, because you’re buying from local people. Really, what’s the point of earning money just to shove into the pockets of a tiny number of people? Local spending is proven to make local life better. It just works.
The mainstream media are constantly on about how much food is wasted. It’s a moral emergency, as well as a climate one. But here’s the thing: mindful shopping. It sounds like a middle class airy-fairy idea, but if you actually think about what you need before you buy it, the waste will be reduced. If you don’t have ‘easy’ packaging that enables you to fling into your trolley 6 apples that you won’t eat, a house-brick-sized piece of mild cheddar that you don’t need and three cheap quiches that you won’t get around to eating in time, you’ll be saving yourself money, saving on waste, just improving all the metrics all round.
Look, I know no-one wants to spend more time buying food than they absolutely have to. But if you buy less and buy more mindfully, there’s no call to spend a lot of extra time titting about. Just go in, buy what you need, and leave. Market halls are under one roof, the parking’s near by, you can often get other items like birthday cards, batteries, clothes and DVDs … even books. Supermarkets have nothing on market halls other than the cultural mindset that’s been growing since the 1950s.
There is one thing, however …
A small problem in the range of products: dry goods
There’s one thing missing from many of the smaller markets, and I’ve noticed they’ve gone from the larger ones too: loose dry goods. You used to be able to buy pulses, grains and even flour at the market, all loose, so you could get what you needed weighed out. Hygiene notwithstanding, both Morrisons and Waitrose have started selling a limited range of dry goods in this way, so there’s presumably a market for it and the hygiene issues that used to abound do not have to be a problem.
I have a mind to run a short experiment with a market stall that sells a good range of these items, with appropriate marketing to draw in customers from all walks of life.
What do you think? Possible? Not possible? Are we going to keep on going to supermarkets until the planet’s dying breaths are finally lost?