Who can resist the siren call of the supermarkets – open till late, filled with food catering to most tastes, often at bargain prices? But if we widen the lens to take in the bigger picture, we find society is paying a huge price for this convenience. Our food system is controlled by forces which may not have our good health at heart. And their power is growing globally, with a relatively small number of corporations monopolising the food system at every stage of the food chain, and at an ever-increasing rate. In the UK, four supermarket chains control over 80% of food retail, with the Asda/Walmart and Sainsbury merger tightening the grip.
The problem with monopolies is their power to abuse much of what is under their dominion. The results are: unfair contracts for suppliers, poor work practices in countries with substandard regulations (one distressing example are slave ships), inhumane conditions for animals in factory farms, and a system geared to producing cheap, high-fat, high-sugar foods, generating an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Another casualty is biodiversity: modern food systems are dominated by five animal species and twelve crops according to Biodiversity International. “The supermarket chains play the role of gatekeeper, deciding how food is produced and what fills the shelves,” says Oxfam’s Marita Wiggerthale.
Everything is scaled up – including waste. Eight of Britain’s leading supermarkets create more than 800,000 tonnes of plastic packaging waste every year, according to an investigation by The Guardian in January, this year. To add insult to injury, supermarkets spend millions on marketing to misinform the public about where and how their food is produced. Fake farm names make imported food appear British, while ‘country of origin’ labelling claims British status for products which originated from abroad but were processed and packed in the UK.
I prefer to spend my money with food enterprises operating with sustainability in mind, that minimise waste, are transparent about their supply chains, take an ethical approach to animal welfare and the environment, and produce food for health and flavour, not shelf life.
Post-Brexit, we need to be producing as much local food as possible. Currently half of the UK’s food is imported – another good reason to eschew a global food system. By spending locally, you are also boosting the local economy, instead of filling the coffers of distant shareholders. Money spent locally gets spent and re-spent with other small independent local businesses. After surveying UK local authorities, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies found that for every £1 spent with small and medium-sized businesses, 63p was re-spent in the local area compared to 40p with a larger business. Earlier research by the New Economic Foundation found that every pound spent locally is worth £1.76 to the local economy.
Avoiding the neon-lit, soul-numbing supermarket experience will take you on an adventure as you explore the many offerings of a growing and increasingly vibrant alternative food culture.
1. Start in the high street
Traditional butchers and greengrocers know where their food comes from and are more apt to source locally, providing fresher produce. If you are lucky enough to have a local butcher or greengrocer, ‘use ‘em or lose ‘em’. Small shops are closing at an alarming rate. In five years, the share of small independents in the grocery market has fallen to just six per cent. According to Retail At Bay, the 2018 report by Professor Joshua Bamfield of the Centre for Retail Research, the number of food specialist stores (including: butchers, greengrocers, bread, deli, cheese, tea and coffee merchants) have diminished by 43% since 2012. The loss of local, independent shops has a serious impact on access to food, particularly for people on lower incomes or without use of a car.
2. Find freshness at a farmers’ market or farm shop
You can’t get closer to the source of your food than buying direct from the farmer. Exchange the ‘perpetual summer’ of supermarkets for freshly-harvested food grown locally. Eating seasonally is also cheaper than its out-of-season supermarket counterpart (asparagus at Christmas, anyone?) And, having not spent days in a chiller, freshly-harvested food will be tastier and more nutritious. Like CSAs, farmers’ markets arose as an antidote to mass-produced food, with the first one in the UK launched in Bath in 1987. They are governed by regulations including that food sold must have been produced within 50 miles of the market. Look for your nearest farmers’ market and farm shop at FARMA, a not-for-profit association of UK farm shops and farmers’ markets.
3. Deepen your connection to farming through Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
CSAs also emerged in the 1980s to counter the destructive effects of intensive large-scale farming and supermarket dominance by rebuilding local food links. As a member of your local CSA farm, you receive a share of the food produced. Depending on what your local CSA offers, this could include sustainably produced eggs, raw milk, meat, honey and bread. Meanwhile your up-front membership contribution supports the farmer financially, through thick and thin, enabling sustainable long-term business planning. In return, expect to be invited on volunteer work party days or on-farm harvest celebration events. A day out on a CSA farm is like entering another dimension, a taste of how life could be. CSAs may deliver to your home or a drop-off point, or you may pick up your shopping from the farm. Look for a CSA farm near you through the CSA Network UK.
4. Get a meat box delivered direct from the farm for full traceability
Farms such as Greendale Farm Shop, Well Hung Meat Company, Higher Hacknell or National Trust farms (to mention but a few) all deliver grass-fed meat nationwide. Buying meat from a farm that does its own butchery will offer a choice of cuts, including the cheaper ones such as blade and skirt which need long slow cooking and yield unctuous delights. If you have a freezer, buying half a sheep carcase, for instance, usually leads to further discounts. Some farmers offer sustainable fish too, such as Stream Farm, Craig Farm and Field & Flower. Or source direct from a sustainable fishmonger, for instance Fish For Thought or the Cornish Fishmonger. Canny packaging for meat or fish keeps the produce refrigerated and can usually be recycled or returned for re-use.
5. Join your nearest Food Assembly to order direct from local producers.
You pick up your order from a weekly local pop-up market with food producers from within a 150 mile radius. Co-founded in France in 2011 by Mounir Mahjoubi, Macron’s digital campaign manager as La Ruche Qui Dit Oui! (‘The Hive That Says Yes’), it rebranded as the Food Assembly for its Europe-wide launch. It offers online tools to connect farmers with citizens, enabling farmers to define their own prices. Food producers pay a commission on sales, and receive 80% of every sale compared with 15%-25% from the supermarkets. They get their own online shop and can record accounting and customer analytics. If there is no Food Assembly near you, consider becoming an Assembly leader for a small remuneration, and organise a weekly food fest in a venue of your choosing.
6. Check out BigBarn, the original online farmers’ market
Founded in 2000 by a fifth-generation farmer Anthony Davison, after discovering his onions were being sold in a supermarket for eight times their wholesale price; his mission is to reconnect people with local food. The Amazon-style website offers local food purchased via one portal and shipped by the food maker. The online marketplace also offers a local food map with over 7,500 outlets to find local producers and shops. It also has cooking videos with recipes to make, and you can also upload your own!
7. Open Food Network UK, an online website bringing shoppers and food producers together
This open source platform was created in 2011 by a group of farmers and food activists in Australia. Its commonly-owned open source platform is freely available to develop fair and sustainable food systems globally. Food hubs, food producers and makers can set up their own online shops which are independently operated. The Open Food Network UK was founded in 2016 by StroudCo Food Hub, Tamar Grow Local, Dean Forest Food Hub and Fife Diet, and it is now joined by other food enterprises. You can shop by UK postcode, using a range of filters – including your preferred delivery service (drop-off or pick-up). The site respects the farming cycle so sometimes shoppers have to order a week in advance and wait until their order is harvested/produced or check back again if the cycle is currently closed. The pay-off is the freshest produce at affordable prices. Open Food Network UK also offers a streamlined way to administer bulk food orders by supplying tools to process orders, invoices and logistics, making life easier for buying groups.
8. Join or create food a buying group
Bring friends and neighbours together to buy food at wholesale prices. You choose from a catalogue (usually one from a big wholefood supplier such as Essential Trading or Suma), then the collective orders are dispatched to the wholesaler. The order is delivered to one drop-off point (someone’s house or shed) where you pick it up at a set time. Buying groups usually focus on dried staples such as coffee, rice or olive oil. You can do deals with friends such as split a case of baked beans. The savings you can make through bulk buying are mouth-watering.
9. Speciality food delivery shops abound online with bargains galore
The well-established Goodness Direct offers vegan, free-from, eco and organic food and other products. Vegans can also head over to NotFrom.com. Most sites offer sale prices on some items. Healthy Food Supplies is another great way to stock up the food cupboard for less.
10. Consolidate your shopping and scope out local and national veg box big hitters
Abel & Cole and Riverford are the biggest veg box delivery schemes in the country and they have an established track record, but if you’ve got a more local box scheme available, your produce will inevitably be fresher – check out the Community Farm’s veg box scheme based just outside of Bristol. However, both companies have diversified and offer more options for their clientele, like recipe boxes with carefully measured ingredients (a sustainable alternative to companies like Hello Fresh), which make rustling up a meal from scratch a breeze. Customers can buy items separately including daily fresh staples such a sourdough bread, fresh milk and butter. Similarly, Farmdrop (currently delivering only in London, Bath and Bristol) functions as a sustainable bespoke delivery service, allowing customers to do a one-stop shop for fresh vegetables, staple foods and household goods. It has a policy to pay farmers at least 70% of the final retail price, which manifests its mission to fix the broken food system.
Any shopping tips for avoiding supermarkets? Let us know!
Photograph: Will Power