In 2010 I wanted to give up supermarkets for a year. So I just did. At the time I had my own reasons and as a busy mum I didn’t manage to avoid them completely. Certainly don’t think that the idea of a supermarket is bad, nor do I resent these companies for being successful. But I do want the food economy I am part of to be healthy, diverse and abundant. When it is dominated and controlled by two giant companies interested in their own profits, as it is in Australia, I think the sustainability of our whole food system is at risk. I’m not completely supermarket-free anymore. However, I am pretty discerning about what products I buy and where I spend my money. I think it is worth all of us taking a good hard look at our habits and purchases so that the choices we make are good ones for ourselves, our community and the planet. Here are five reasons to give up supermarkets or at least re-examine how you use them:
1. Give up Supermarkets for your own Health
I once read a newspaper article where some health expert described a supermarket as a diabetes store – the perfect place to buy yourself diabetes. Of course, it is possible to make good, healthy choices in a supermarket. If you shop around the edges of the store, you’ll have opportunity to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and some reasonably good meat and dairy options. But once you hit the aisles, most of the items are so packed with sugar, fat, oils and preservatives that they can barely be classified as food. Not only this, but the supermarkets push their in-store promotions pretty hard. These businesses spend up big on research and data collection so they know exactly what your weak points are and how to make you buy. You can’t avoid the two-for-one deals on potato crisps or strategically placed candy bars – sometimes these promotions are placed right among the fresh food! So removing yourself from temptation allows you to make better choices for your health.
2. Keeping Costs Down
When I did give up supermarkets I found that I spent less money on food. I did have to shop differently and cook a lot more, but I got better deals on fruit and vegetables at farms or local small businesses. Establishing a relationship with my butcher paid dividends and joining a food co-op helped me get trickier items at a good price. Because I took time to search out the right retailers, the freshness and quality of the food was premium. I also saved money because I avoided buying foods I didn’t need – mostly the unhealthy foods that can sometimes creep into a trolley – so I lost weight too!
3. Real Choice
Choice can seem abundant when you wander the supermarket aisles, but most of the brands on the shelves are controlled by just a handful of mega-businesses. Smaller processors find it really hard to get on the shelves because they have to pay such large fees for the privilege. So if you give up supermarkets you can open yourself up to more choices that you didn’t even know you had.
4. It’s more about where you DO shop than where you DON’T
Going supermarket-free is about finding alternatives. Once you make the decision to give up supermarkets you can find to the other options that you may not have considered. Farmers markets; Pick-your-own farms; Community Supported Agriculture schemes; social enterprises; home delivery; local, small businesses. Supporting these businesses with your money helps to ensure we keep a diverse mix of retail options available to us so we can have real choice in the future too.
5. It’s a way to Shop Sustainably
In Australia we have situation where over 80% of the grocery market is controlled by two large, aggressive retailers who influence the production of food from beginning to end. There is little room for small, sustainable businesses to get in the game. This duopoly has enormous power to manipulate the market. Even if they never stray into the realms of illegality, their size and power means that their decisions about suppliers, contracts and discounting have huge impacts on the communities that ultimately produce the food and on the communities that consume it. Despite disguising their efforts with marketing and spin, these businesses will always work in their self-interest. But what is best for their bottom line is not always compatible with the health and welfare of us, our community or our planet.
So, for instance, a few years ago supermarkets started selling milk for $1 per litre. The advertising made it sound so helpful: “Because we all buy milk!” it chirped. But that is just the point. We all do need milk and selling it at such an attractive price means that we’ll all go into the supermarket and buy not just milk, but also a dozen of the other things that we have to walk past to get to it. (If you haven’t noticed milk is always at the back of the supermarket for this very reason). It might seem like a god-send, but selling milk at this price is not profitable. It ultimately means that dairy farmers (the guys who slog their guts out getting up before dawn each day to milk cows so that we don’t have to) get less and less for their product. When they are pressured by the milk processor to sell for less than the cost of production they can’t sustain their business and ultimately walk away. The situation is undoubtably more complex that this blog post has space for but the market power of the big two supermarkets means they can act this way regardless of the effect on the community. Certainly they can use their power for good, but their responsibility is actually to use their power to make money for their shareholders.
I’m not gonna lie. It’s not easy to give up supermarkets but it is worth doing. Even if you decide to shop at them again after a while, giving them up gives you a whole new perspective on the food system.