Market forces! This is what capitalism is about! I hear ye cry. Supermarkets are phenomenally successful and popular for a reason, and that reason must be that people actually want to shop in them. If they didn't, then supermarkets wouldn't make any money, much like the market stalls. But is it really as simple as that? Supermarkets disconnect people with the produce they are buying. They are easy, convenient, entirely because you don't have to think about the shopping. Its merely a chore to be performed each week, hopefully as quickly as possible and with minimum fuss. Everything is in one place, and right in front of you. There is no hunting for the right things, no running between different stalls to get meat, veg, fruit, dry goods, cleaning materials...just trundling up and down the neat, accessible aisle, equipped with an oversized basket on wheels to help you. People go to supermarkets to get 'food for the week' or to 'pick up something nice for dinner', not for the experience of finding a new foodstuff, or even to enjoy the task at hand. Not, in short, to connect in anyway with the food on offer.
Today I am in Sainsbury's. I walk in - this in itself is unusual since the whole place is designed to be driven to - and I am greeted by a giant cardboard pumpkin, holding shelves full of edible pumpkins, and the slogan, "Try something new this Halloween". Along with my oversized squash, I am invited to pick up a free card detailing Jamie Oliver's recipe for pumpkin soup. Its not exactly original. Pumpkin boiled up with onion and chicken stock and a bit of ginger so it sounds exotic. Mine is far more interesting, in my humble opinion. On the back, there is another recipe for Rice Laska Soup which does involve pumpkin, along with lime leaves, chinese five-spice and coconut milk, all of which are available in a British store, in late October, obviously. The pumpkins are enormous, mine is a good foot across, and all for 99p. The Halloween sticker on it gives no clue as to where it was grown. When I did get it home (its weight providing another good reason why most people drive to supermarkets), it carved beautifully, and there is now an evil looking Jack O Lantern in the window. I also cruelly turned its innards into soup, and even with my extra spicy Carribean recipe (with chilli oil, ginger, nutmeg and orange juice) it tasted very very bland indeed. The pumpkin didn't even roast well, just turning to mush in the oven. These pumpkins were grown specifically to be enormous as Halloween decorations, not to eat. They were pumped full of water, size and price at the expensive of flavour and quality.
This pretty much sums up the whole supermarket experience for me. A great deal of literature has already been written on the topic of how evil supermarkets are; I have already mentioned the threat to smaller food retailers, but on top of that there is exploitation and domination of third world producers, sweatshop and child labourers, the energy and resources wasted in the 'food miles' associated with shipping, for example, strawberries in October, all the way from 'Israel' (read: occupied Palestinian territories). Commodity chains get longer and longer and more and more complex, and the consumer is removed even further from the producer. And you really do not want to know what they do to chicken... (adding beef proteins, for the record, which help the meat absorb and retain nearly 50% added water. Legally, too. Note to the reader: reading Felicity Lawrence's 'Not On The Label' can make you anorexic)
I do not want or need to reiterate any of that. What I am more concerned with is quality, or lack of it. I am not denying that supermarkets are cheap and convenient, nor that they offer a great deal of choice and variety. What I am questioning is their ability to provide consistent quality and value for money. Of course, it always looks so tempting, all the exotic, colourful fruits that are intentionally placed at the front of the store to seduced you in, or the enticing aromas of freshly baked bread that are deliberately blown around the shop... and it works, I always spend more money than I intended, and get really into the idea of cooking, every time I go in there. I am weak and gullible and naive.
On average, we spend about 10% of our incomes on feeding ourselves. This is not a great deal, and in fact, is less than we did 30 years ago. But the poorest fifth of the population still spend over 30% of their incomes on food. Significantly, the lower your income, the more likely you are to be overweight, or have diet-related illnesses. This seems to be because, the cheaper the food, the more more processed it is likely to be. And the more processed it is, the more fat, sugar, salt and additives it is likely to contain. Here are some examples from Sainsbury's.
'free range' chicken breast fillets - 350g for £3.99, and tikka masala cooking sauce, £1.49 or:
Chicken Tikka Masala (canned, serves 2) for 89p
Fresh Mango (from South Africa), 99p each or
canned mango slices in syrup, 39p
Lincolnshire sausages, 2 packs of six for £4 or
frozen Toad-in-the-Hole, microwavable for £1.99
Depressing, isn't it? This is not to say, however, that the more money you spend, the better the food will be. Skinny celebrities seem to be able to spend a great deal of money on eating not a lot at all. My 99p pumpkin was not processed into pre-made, salt and fat-ladened soup, (43p per can) but it is highly likely that it was grown outside of this country, shipped or even flown in, and given its size and lack of flavour, grown using a lot of unpleasant fertilisers and pesticides. I could go to the indoor market and buy one for 60p, but it would be a lot smaller, the skin might be blemished, and worse still, the market doesn't have a conveniently located car park and I would have to carry the thing home. On the up side, I can be assured that it was grown up the road on a farm near Richmond. About 8 miles away. And it might even taste like pumpkin!
I am now, for the first time in over two years, in a position where I can afford 'decent' food. I've always managed to save money on food because I love cooking, and prefer, for instance, to make sauces than to buy them in jars. I am finding myself being a bit more liberal with the food budget now- buying *good* meat from the market, which is fresher, local, less stuffed with nasty things, but twice the price of Sainsbury's. This does not however, mean that I am price-blind. Supermarkets have to make their money somehow, and going on the assumption that the majority of customers want to find what they need quickly and easily, means that supermarkets are likely to play tricks. Take, for example, last weeks Christmas pudding experience. Immediately in front of you as you walk in, is a rack of "snacking nuts and seeds." A snack sized bag of whole almonds (100g) will set you back £1.89. But walk to the back of the store to the 'baking' section, and I can get 100g of 'baking' almonds for £1.09.... which is not only daft, but infinitely frustrating, and totally deliberate on the part of the shop.
Basically, in supermarkets, you are paying cheaper prices, but through clever marketing and gratuitous trickery, you are paying for convenience and speed and packaging, not for quality or piece of mind. Supermarkets have taken over the country entirely because this is a compromise most consumers are willing to make.