Imagine what would happen to supermarkets if we all bought everything we needed from their most basic range, topped up with a few treats from the ‘about-to-go-out-of-date’ shelf and a little free range meat when we could afford it.
That pretty much describes the shopping habits of Jack Monroe, one of the most talked-about cooks in the country, whose meticulously costed recipes, developed when she had less than £10 a week to spend on food for herself and her son, have won her a book deal, a couple of Guardian columns and now, controversially, a role in a Sainsbury’s ad campaign in January.
There’s a wearying predictability about the vitriol that has been heaped on her, the accusations that she is ‘selling out’, the cries of ‘shame’.
Really these kneejerk reactions have completely missed the point.
I am no fan of the supermarket and in my dreams every suburb and housing estate has a regular market selling locally grown, seasonal food, alongside a few independent and ethical traders whose businesses contribute to a thriving local economy.
As I said: in my dreams.
Until that day we need to face the fact that our food system is very, very broken and make the best we can of what is on offer. And if we really care, we will also call out the multiple injustices inherent in the industry and support alternatives as they emerge.
I don’t know exactly why Sainsbury’s have asked Jack Monroe to front their campaign but I’m absolutely certain it’s not because they want people to shop as she does.
As I understand it, her role will be to demonstrate how to use the leftovers from a roast (free range) chicken.
Are Sainsbury’s really anticipating that the result will be a decline in chicken sales because people are suddenly making better use of the meat? That’s not how businesses work.
No, supermarkets just want to get us through their doors because they know that most of us, once we are there, do not stick rigidly to a Jack Monroe-style shopping list but are easily lured towards special offers, ready meals and bogofs that bring them the biggest profits and are the worst offenders in terms of promoting waste and perpetuating low wages for producers.
Fellow shoppers, it is up to us. We all have a choice. Even inside the supermarket we have a choice.
What Jack Monroe has shown us with her recipes and her campaigning is that even if you only have a tiny budget it is possible to take back some of the power that is concentrated in the hands of a very few retailers.
I think it would be hilarious if the result of the ad campaign was that we all started cooking our own food with ingredients from the supermarket basics range and making our own lasagne instead of buying the ready version.
Sainsbury’s will be banking on us not doing that. But in the end Sainsbury’s doesn’t control how we spend the money in our wallets – we do.