I clearly remember the moment that I gave supermarkets the flick. It was 2010 and I had two young children, aged almost one and three. We lived on the outskirts of Sydney – the most expensive city in Australia (maybe even the world – it feels that way sometimes!) I was pushing a trolley full of groceries away from the store and glanced at my watch. I’d only meant to do a ‘quick shop’ and somehow I’d managed to lose two hours in the supermarket without actually realising it.
I should confess straight away that I love shopping for food. I love exploring goods, reading labels, choosing produce, trying new things, planning and budgeting, asking questions, spotting differences and everything else about the process of modern-day hunting and gathering. I am also transfixed by the idea that two powerful retail businesses – Woolworths and Wesfarmers (who own Coles) – can control so much of what we eat and how we eat it.
Certified grocery geek that I am so it’s not surprising that I could emerge from a supermarket wondering where the hell the time went. The supermarket itself was a bit like a casino. It had no natural light, no clocks and a whole lot of other flashy ways to distract me and make me spend my money.
And I really did spend money. That day, I must have blown about $200 for a week’s worth of groceries for the family. But when I examined what I had bought it wasn’t a pretty picture. There were lots of plastic packets of junk food. Cakes, biscuits, chips, sugar-filled yoghurts, bread with ingredients lists longer than my arm. There was a big question in my mind about whether the contents of the packets in my trolley was actually, well, food.
Why I quit supermarkets
I’d recently read Michael Pollan’s book called In Defence of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto where he devised a simple mantra when choosing what to eat: Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants. Pollan puts a lot of effort into defining what is ‘food’ and what is just ‘food like’. It’s fair to say that a lot of what was in my trolley wasn’t real ‘food’ by his definition. I knew that if I was going to change that I was going to have to quit the supermarkets that excelled at getting me to buy this type of stuff. I’ve written more about exactly how that works in this post.
But it wasn’t just a big question about healthy food that led me to quit supermarkets. I was also really worried about how ethical they were. I lived on the semi-rural fringe of Sydney. I was literally watching trees being bulldozed and small farmers being driven out business because the businesses who held the power in the market wouldn’t pay them enough to cover the cost of production. I’d heard stories about the ‘unconscionable conduct’ of supermarkets towards their suppliers, of unfairness towards farm workers and of the massive food waste involved in the supermarket system. (If you want to read more about this, get your hands on Supermarket Monsters by Malcolm Knox. It’s an excellent book!)
It didn’t really seem fair or sustainable in the long term. I didn’t think that there was a lot I could do about it. After all, I was just a stay-at-home mum with two kids. But I wanted to do something. So I thought: ‘I wonder what would happen I just stop shopping at the big two supermarkets’. And just like that I decided to spend a year finding out.
Here’s what I learnt.
It’s not more expensive to step out of the supermarket
Price is everybody’s main concern when it comes to groceries, and that was the worry for our small one-income family too. Supermarkets spruik their “price drops”, “lowest prices” and how they are driving the cost “down down”. However, over the year I found that it wasn’t more expensive to go without supermarkets over all if I stuck to buying lots of fresh fruits and vegetables when they were in season and learnt to cook them well. It’s true that some individual items may have been more expensive to source at different shops, but that was cancelled out by the savings I made avoiding “two-for-one” deals on bags of chips and easy access to processed and junk foods. There were also other savings to be made by buying in bulk; joining forces with friends to buy things like meat and eggs; and buying directly from the producer via farm stalls, pick your own farms or farmers markets.
But you need to know how to cook
Knowing how to cook was key to my success over the year. It meant that I could buy ingredients and transform them myself into good meals. It meant that we snacked on fruits, vegetables or items I found at the greengrocer. I baked biscuits or cakes without unnecessary preservatives and additives. I didn’t feel chained to the kitchen because I got good at thinking ahead, planning and batching the cooking jobs that I needed to do. I generally opted for easy recipes with simple, seasonal ingredients that helped me to manage the time-to-deliciousness ratio of what we ate.
No more ‘one stop’ shops
So if it’s not cheaper to shop at the big two supermarket retailers, why do 85% of Australians shop with them? Put simply, it’s a hell of a lot more convenient! You can get most of the grocery items that you need at a single store, rather than traipsing to different retailers. The year that I quit supermarkets I had to plan well to make sure I made the multiple stops at different stores to get what I needed. Once I worked it into a routine it wasn’t hard – but I can see how that is a massive barrier for some people.
It was more about where I did shop than where I didn’t
Going supermarket-free is about finding alternatives. Once you make the decision to give up supermarkets you find other options that you may not have considered. And there are actually so many: farmers markets; pick-your-own farms; community supported agriculture schemes; social enterprises; home delivery; local, small businesses; and independent retailers. There’s also the option of growing your own food and swapping produce within your community. Supporting these businesses with my money felt like a way ensure my community kept a diverse mix of retail options available.
The relationships that I developed actually saved me money too. I am forever indebted to the butcher who diced every piece of chicken thigh I bought at no extra charge after I fell pregnant and couldn’t stand the sight of raw meat. The same butcher let me do crazy things like phone my order in while I sat in the car with a sleeping baby out the front of his store, then run in to quickly pay and grab the meat so I didn’t have to wake my child.
Why did you stop?
I always planned to go for a year and see how I went. I wasn’t able to come out of my year and say that I NEVER walked into a supermarket. I gave in and shopped there about 6 times over the year. They are, after all, awfully convenient. I’ve come to value them for that. But the concerns I had looking into my trolley that day in 2010 remain. Processed and packaged food is everywhere and even though the market dominance of Coles and Woolworths is being challenged by international competitors they still have power over our food supply concentrated in their hands.
These days I still do most of my grocery shopping at small retailers, farmers markets and social enterprises that offer good value for money. I still find this the best value way to shop. I no longer worry if I have to pick something up at Coles or do a whole shop at Woolworths. This challenge might not be for everyone, but this year gave me a whole new outlook on how to source the freshest and cheapest food available.