The hidden costs in your weekly shop
Buying food anywhere other than a supermarket is ‘middle class’ and ‘elitist’, I’m told. Why? Because, so the opinion-formers say, supermarkets sell cheap food, and cheap food is a necessity for millions. My protests about the food system – who profits, who loses out – are cut off with sneers. It’s easy for you, they say. You’ve got the money to buy into an organic box scheme or shop at farmers’ markets, delis, posh grocers or (oddly) street markets.
But whether on a tight budget or not, I’ve generally shopped the same way. I learned young. My mother didn’t have much money (she was a cotton weaver, my dad a barber), but she knew how to shop and cook. She couldn’t abide people who spent money for show and skimped on food. Yet even now, in spite of droves of TV chefs, one of the largest cookbook publishing industries in the world and the success of magazines such as this one, we’re still mostly a nation that rates cars, TVs and sofas well above what we put on our plates.
And supermarkets know it. If food is just a means to an end, they’re the perfect place to shop for it. I had a short affair with A&P (a big US chain) while living in Indiana in the 1960s. It was a place of wonders: whipped cream in aerosol cans; neat tubes of frozen concentrated orange juice and tinned hearts of palm! (my notebook from that time lists the latter under ‘easy first courses’).
A food journalist for decades now, I’m no longer lured by such shiny gimmicks. But what raises my stress levels is the nation’s naivety about supermarket prices. If you cook from scratch, how cheap are they? For raw ingredients, not very. And the cheap stuff has, to a great degree,been subsidised by other people.
First, by low-paid staff who need their incomes supplemented by state benefits. Second, by the suppliers who pay to have their products on the best shelf (eye level) or in end-of-aisle displays – or to be stocked at all, similar to what was revealed in the Premier Foods ‘pay-to-stay’ scandal. There’s a little known world of payments – demands for £50k here, £20k there to stock goods. Producers tell journalists about it off the record, as they’d be de-listed if they talked publicly. Suppliers also pay for the 2-for-1 offers. Thousands of farmers have been driven out of business by low prices offered by retailers who can buy globally where labour is cheap and animal welfare a low priority. The horsemeat scandal didn’t come out of the blue.
It’s also why we’ve lost so many small fruit and veg growers – some forced out of business, some bought out by the big guys. The big stores make some of their greatest profits on fruit and veg, which is why, much of the time, you’ll find them a lot cheaper elsewhere. There are other prices to pay besides the one you pay at the till –
and we’re all footing them. And it’s not idle, privileged, middle-class chit-chat to say so.
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