On supermarket shopping

The first supermarket supposedly appeared on the American landscape in 1946. That is not very long ago. Until then, where was all the food? Dear folks, the food was in homes, gardens, local fields, and forests. It was near kitchens, near tables, near bedsides. It was in the pantry, the cellar, the backyard.

Joel Salatin, Folks, This Ain’t Normal

The supermarket in this picture is in Fiji, and I have never been to it; but if I ever did, I would understand at once how to shop there. That is the thing about supermarkets: they may vary a little in exactly what products they stock or in what currency they accept at the checkout, but essentially they are all the same. They are machines, designed to sell groceries and some other commonly-bought things; in this essay, though, I’m going to focus on groceries, as that is still their principal offering.

Supermarkets purport to offer convenience, affordability and quality, at costs that are invisible to their customers but are all too obvious to their suppliers. (If you would like hair-curling detail on this latter point, I heartily recommend Joanna Blythman‘s excellent book Shopped (Fourth Estate, 2004); it’s UK-centric, but the points it makes about the supermarket model apply everywhere.) Let me address these claims one by one.

Convenience

Supermarkets are certainly convenient in the absence of anywhere else to get food in your immediate area, which is the case for depressingly large tracts of the UK. But this is not much of a claim. Most supermarkets would certainly wish us to agree that it is quicker and easier to go to one of their megastores than to visit multiple specialist shops – butcher, greengrocer, fishmonger and so on.

To the extent that this is true, it is entirely a by-product of the ubiquitous private car. It’s true that you can get to some supermarkets by public transport, but nobody who has tried it would describe it as convenient. You will rarely find a supermarket without a car-park. They depend on cars as a fish does on water.

This is an issue, because the ubiquitous private car is destined to get a lot less ubiquitous, and eventually it will go away altogether. People will resist this, because we have a frankly bizarre attachment to the things, but it is going to cost much more than the average person can afford (and would do already if we paid the real costs). Even the techno-utopians seem to envisage a world in which we all hire self-driving electric cars to get us around, and for a number of reasons which will be meat for another post I don’t expect that to happen, or not outside a handful of wealthy areas.

At that point, it would much more convenient to have a butcher, a greengrocer, and a fishmonger in your town centre, and people will be digging up those car-parks in order to do something more useful with the land, such as grow food. Of course this change will disrupt rather more things than supermarkets, but do you really want to pay your hard-earned money into a system that will be incapable of feeding your grandchildren? As opposed, say, to planting a walnut tree.

The reality is that while your High Street in ye olden days would have had a separate butcher, greengrocer, and so forth, they would all be in the same locality. You can cover quite as much ground wheeling your trolley around a large supermarket as you can flitting from shop to shop in an old-fashioned market town, or from stall to stall in an indoor food market.

Ah yes – the indoor food market, still a staple in many European cities. In the UK, they are few and far between and usually very expensive. Borough Market in London is the poster child for this. There may be people who regularly get the bulk of their fresh produce from Borough Market, but those people are earning a lot more than the national average. In Europe, by contrast, many people still do use them, and they are reasonably priced. I remember staying in a somewhat ropy hotel round the back of the Termini railway station in Rome; there was a fantastic food-market there, heaving with working-class Italians getting their groceries. Which brings me to:

Affordability

We believe that shopping in supermarkets is cheap largely because the advertising put out by the supermarket industry is endlessly banging on about it. Most of the time, their point is that Supermarket A is cheaper than Supermarket B (at least for certain products). What they dwell on far less is whether supermarkets are the cheapest way to buy food, which is still their main purpose. They are the cheapest way to buy certain kinds of food, granted; if I wanted to buy an Indonesian factory-farmed meat chicken, for example, I would struggle to find one anywhere else, and certainly not for three quid. But if you want to eat good food cheaply, supermarkets are not that helpful.

Consider pork. Almost all parts of the pig are edible – as demonstrated in John Barlow’s entertaining book Everything but the Squeal (W F Howes, 2009) – but not that much of the pig is on sale in your local supermarket. Admittedly there might be almost any part of the pig in a sausage, but you might wish to be a little more selective. Pig’s ears are a delicacy in parts of Europe, but you won’t see them in the meat aisle. Offal? You can have liver, and that’s about it.

It’s a similar tale with beef and lamb. The cheap cuts simply aren’t there. You won’t find oxtail or neck of lamb – either would be the basis of a tasty and nutritious stew, the kind of thing a reasonably well-to-do peasant might expect to eat fairly regularly. As for rabbit, you can whistle for it.

But it’s not just the stuff you can’t buy, it’s all the stuff you can – and do – buy above and beyond the things you went in for. This is not accidental. Supermarkets, like all commercial enterprises, are there to part you from your money. They design their stores with great care to tempt you to buy. They run loss leaders – usually at the expense of their suppliers – to make it look as if you are getting amazing value. If you go into a supermarket with a shopping-list, you are very likely to end up buying things that weren’t on it. This does not represent a saving in money, unless you are very bad at compiling shopping-lists.

Quality

It may be true that you can buy the expensive cuts of meat slightly less expensively in a supermarket than in a proper butcher’s, but I still think you’re getting a worse deal. That is because food quality matters. I’ve written about this topic before; it’s something I care deeply about, and something I think everyone should. As long as 1947, the pioneering agronomist Sir Albert Howard published a book entitled The Soil and Health which made this very point, and subsequent research backs him up. It makes intuitive sense, after all, that you’re not going to get something out of a foodstuff that didn’t go into it.

Supermarkets sell industrially-produced food. They can hardly do otherwise; that is what they were invented to do, and the economies of scale supposedly offered by this approach are what give them their edge. Their grim determination to flout seasonal production also mandates this. You can buy something in the middle of winter which is, at least botanically, a strawberry.

Quality manifests itself to the food industry as a set of regulatory hurdles to be surmounted or, ideally, circumvented. They want the cheapest product possible, and if this requires the use of industrial solvents then so be it. (Another of Joanna Blythman’s books, Swallow This (Fourth Estate, 2015), will tell you more about this than you want to know. Read it anyway; you’ll never skip the list of ingredients on the side of a package again.) The problem with this approach, of course, is that the result may not be especially good to eat, either from a health standpoint or that of gastronomy.

That £3 Indonesian chicken is technically a chicken, but it lived a dreadful life and had a dreadful death and in between was never allowed to any of the things that constitute the good life for a chicken. I’ve raised chickens myself, and to do it for £3 a time involves cutting every corner there is. Don’t forget, that £3 also covers wrapping it in plastic and shipping it half-way round the world. Frankly, I want no part of it.

Have you noticed the existence of lemonade which proclaims itself to have been made with real lemons? Of course it should be made with real lemons: the clue is in the name. Yet we can’t assume this by default. The same goes for grass-fed beef. Cows eat grass. I don’t think you need to be an expert in farming to know this. But it’s cheaper to feed them something else – for example, the brains of sheep. That plan didn’t work out well. The depressing thing is that it came as a surprise.

Do I shop at supermarkets? When I have to. I prefer to eat less meat and spend the extra money on getting decent quality, because I think it’s better for me and also for the producers (and, ultimately, the animals). If I can buy food directly from the producer, I do so. If I can produce my own, better still. My chickens cost me more than £3 each, and I don’t regret a penny.

My aim in writing this is not to make you feel bad about shopping at supermarkets (if you do). What I hope is that you consider your options – there may be more than you think. If there are independent food producers local to you, support them if you can. The day may come when you rely on them.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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