Starting as ‘economy’ stores in America in the early 1900s, staffed by a few employees selling only canned goods, supermarkets have come a long way in a relatively short period of time. Today, supermarkets are filled with an average of 47,000 products, and are seen as the ideal milieu for the busy consumer. You can escape both time and space in a supermarket – shopping day or night; buying foods whatever the season or origin; and accessing a host of fresh, frozen, canned, pre-chopped, and microwavable meals, all under the same roof as toiletries, clothes and kitchen merchandise.
However, cracks in the supermarket model are beginning to show. The horsemeat scandal of 2013 raised questions of accountability and transparency. Do supermarkets give us the full story behind who produces our food, what it contains and how it’s produced? The report Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not also uncovered the startling fact that 30-50% of food produced for human consumption is wasted (this figure could be an underestimate as vast amounts of edible soybean and corn are fed to livestock in the industrial food system – Philip Lymbery in Farmageddon argues this could feed an extra 2.65 billion people).
In developed nations, supermarkets are key contributors to this waste. To meet consumer and marketing demands, supermarkets will often reject entire crops because they do not meet quality, uniformity or aesthetic requirements. Discounts and BOGOFs that encourage bulk buying result in the waste of up-to 50% of food that does make it onto the supermarket shelf.
Finally, as landmark food-document Food Inc highlighted, despite the vast number of supermarket products available, the majority of these are produced and controlled by only a handful of industrial food and pharmaceutical companies – so choice is really just an illusion.
When we shop at the supermarket, it’s important to remember that the food we purchase supports particular agricultural practices, and provides demand for the food policies that dominate our food system. Every time we buy food we have the opportunity to ‘vote with our forks,’ we define what a ‘value meal’ is, and every penny that we spend is a vote for the kind of food system that we want for the future. The supermarket definition of value is high quantity, cheap and convenient food. However, across the country, consumers are growing tired of shopping in soul-less refrigerated warehouses. Our trust in the supermarket model to provide us with fresh, healthy, transparently produced food, is at an all-time low. Joanna Blythman wrote about saying goodbye to the supermarkets in the Guardian this week, “We are sick of being hoodwinked by the smoke-and-mirrors promotions of the big chains. Consumers correctly suspect that they are being diddled into spending more than they intended and are voting with their feet.”
In celebration of our supermarket exodus, we’ve looked at number of initiatives offering an alternative to the way we purchase our food. Recent examples have included: gleaning and freeganing; growing your own; joining a local vegetable box or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme, or buying from farmer’s markets. These means of ‘shopping’ for your food can be cheaper (with savings of over £2000 a year), healthier and it will bring you closer to your food and your local community.
However, the success of supermarket model suggests that people have flocked to them for reasons other than just food. Yes the food is abundant, and apparently cheap, but the supermarket model has sold itself on a number of non-food related conveniences, abundant parking, petrol stations, ever-increasing one-stop shops for anything you might need, are just a number of factors that have contribute to the success of the supermarkets. Recognising that these additional benefits are often important we thought we’d offer-up some alternative supermarkets, rather than alternatives to the supermarket. These examples still retain the supermarket model, but broaden the definition of ‘value’ to one that prioritises quality, ethics, community, environment and health in our food system.
People’s (co-operative) supermarkets
A wave of co-operative food models has swept across Europe and the US in recent years. One well-known example is The People’s Supermarket, located in London. The People’s Supermarket carries food and products that you would find in a traditional supermarket, but there are no BOGOFs or other discount deals to encourage over-consumption and food waste. Instead, the only bargaining going on is verbal – people are encouraged to barter for foods, especially if they’re about to pass their ‘use by’ date.
Their vision is to create a commercially sustainable social enterprise that achieves its growth targets whilst prioritising community development and cohesion. As a co-operative, it is run by the community for the community; it operates on accountability, interaction and a chance to provide the community just what they need. In return for 4 hours of volunteering a month, it pays members £25 annually and gives them 20% off purchases.
Another example is Brighton’s hiSbe, a new independent social supermarket standing up for ‘how it should be’. Their principles include: go local, choose seasonal, protect nature, support ethical, think welfare, save fish, end waste and avoid processed food. The store attempts to be transparent about every single element of the food chain. It cares where the food comes from, it trades fairly with producers, it stocks responsibly (using the Ethical Consumer Index), it shows where your money goes, and it refuses to throw out food that can still be eaten. By providing common, recognisable products that are accessible to people on average budgets and ordinary diets, they prove that being savvy with your food choices is not, and should not be, an act for those with extra money or time.
Social supermarkets are a newer, recently emerged business model reflective of the impacts of recent ‘austerity England’ or food-stamp cuts in the US. This model aims to tackle the chronic issue of food poverty in developed nations. Rather than treating people as victims of food poverty and giving out free food via food banks, social supermarkets sell products like a normal supermarket. You have a choice, you buy food, and you are treated like a customer.
However, the Social Supermarket offers shoppers on the verge of food poverty, the chance to buy food, drink and toiletries for 70% less than normal high-street prices. It sells residual products that aren’t sold to supermarkets because of damage or surplus.
Not only is the Social Supermarket accessible to economically marginalised communities, but it is a community in itself. Only members can use the shop – and membership is only open to people on benefits, or living on one of the fifty eligible roads chosen by the supermarket. The first opened in France in the late 1980s, and now there are over 800 ‘epiceries sociales‘ in the country. The model has spread through numerous other European countries in response to the economic situations that many people currently find themselves in.
Britain’s first social supermarket, in Goldthorpe, Yorkshire,opened in December 2013, sparking interest in both the UK and the US. It also encourages members to purchase fresh produce rather than processed foods, and is currently setting up a cafe and workspace to teach people how to cook fresh produce.
Food Swapping is a phenomenon that started in Brooklyn, New York and now has over 125 groups across the US, Canada and Europe. Food swaps are organised events where people trade home-grown, home-made or foraged foods with each other. No money exchanges hands – food is the only currency. The aim is to reduce waste, save people money and bring communities together.
Use your local supermarket in an alternative way
If conventional supermarkets are really your only route, take a new perspective on how to make the most of them, by implementing some basic tactics on how to be a smart supermarket shopper.
Supermarkets have a particular layout, processed, packaged goods are in the central aisles, BOGOFs and bargains are at the ‘pagoda ends’, chocolates and other naughty treats are at the check-out. The basics – milk, bread, fruit, vegetables – are all either at the back of the store or along the sides. The aim is to make you pass by other products in order to reach them.
So, when you shop, don’t be seduced by all the stuff in the middle! Stick to the basics, and as Michael Pollan says, “only buy foods your grandmother and great-grandmother would recognise.” Buy seasonal or local produce, and use the Buycott app on your phone to get more information about who is behind the food you buy, and where your money goes. Try to only buy products with five ingredients or less (ideally ingredients that sound like food and not something you’d find in a science-lab.) Finally, set a budget, make a shopping list and stick to it. Sounds easy, but makes a huge difference to only leaving with what you went in for. ‘Alternative’ supermarkets provide innovative ways to reframe and revalue our food system. Rather than simply falling into ‘buy and consume’ mode, we have to move towards a ‘think, grow/buy, cook, consume, recycle’ model. Reflect on your food choices, and remember the power that each and everyone of us has in voting with our food-spend to create a better food system. When you shop alternatively, you support alternatives to mainstream food production, creating more choice in the system and helping incrementally to make the price of good food available to everyone.