supermarkets

don’t bash Jack Monroe – just shop like her

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if we all bought everything we needed from their most basic range, topped up with a few treats from the ‘about-to-go-out-of-date’ shelf and a little free range meat when we could afford it.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.

 

 

identity crises

When our oldest daughter was about five, she brought a pile of pictures home from school that she had to sort into ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ things. At first I thought it was a bit basic – surely every five-year-old knows that a cat and a car are fundamentally different, that one is alive and the other is not.

Then I remembered how my daughter would have long conversations with her toy trains, and how upset my friend had been when her young son pushed their cat down the stairs.

Perhaps the boundaries aren’t that obvious after all, at least not when you’re five.

For adults, though, it should be different, shouldn’t it? We would look away embarrassed if we saw a grown woman chatting to a toy, and we would be scandalised to learn of a man throwing a cat down the stairs.

And yet there have been some food-related stories recently that have made me wonder whether as adults we aren’t becoming increasingly confused about the fundamental difference between things that are alive and things that are not.

Exmoor ponies

Exmoor ponies*

The uproar when it was disclosed thatsome burgers sold as ‘beef’ actually contained up to 29% horse was, for sure, partly about the fact that somewhere along the line the product had been dishonestly labelled. But there was something more visceral about it too. Because horse is not habitually eaten in the UK I think some of the shock and outrage had to do with the fact that people had to face the fact that burgers contain, um, dead animals.

We have largely managed to hide the connection between eating and death from ourselves. Especially in a supermarket, meat products are sanitised, neatly arranged on plastic trays and covered with cling film.

When I stopped buying supermarket meat and began to get it from the butcher instead, I was at first slightly revolted by the smell of raw meat and the fact that some of the butcher’s knives had blood on them.

Goodness knows how I would have reacted if I had seen a pig being slaughtered to provide me with bacon.

Actually I’m glad I don’t have to be present when animals are killed but I am increasingly worried about the profound effect on our lives that is the result of being so disconnected from the realities of food production.

Food is very big business indeed and it benefits the global corporations to foster this disconnect, to hypnotise adult consumers so that they become like kindergarten pupils, unsure whether what they eat belongs in the ‘living’ or ‘non-living’ pile.

Because if we remembered that food is life, we might get a bit uneasy about it being treated as a commodity.

We might think it was a bit weird to treat something that once had life in it – a hen or a tomato, say – as though it were just another widget on an assembly line.

The week before the burger scandal, people were shocked by a report from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, which highlighted the incredible waste in our modern food system. There was, rightly, a particular outrage over the fact that in the UK up to 30 per cent of vegetables are thrown away because they don’t meet supermarkets’ strict standards on physical appearance.

But this kind of waste is inevitable if we buy into the deception that apples are just another consumer product akin to shoes or cars, rather than something that has to die in order for us to carry on living.

The shiny, uniform displays in the supermarket give the strong impression that apples emerge ready-made from a factory. They encourage us to forget that apples are alive, that they once grew in an orchard, that they have been wonderfully transformed from seed to flower to fruit as a result of complex interactions between soil and insects and weather, combined with the expertise of farmers and growers.

apple blossom

Future apples **

If we think of food production as something linear, like a manufacturing process, then we start to lose touch with the reality that living things – including ourselves – are part of a complex web in which all the parts depend on one another to function properly.

This lack of connection impoverishes our lives in all kinds of ways and has alarming implications for the way we live together in the world.

The food giants like to lull us into a kind of dozy inattentiveness that stops us from asking too many questions about what we are eating. If anything good can come out of these recent scandals, it might be that they jolt us back to reality and encourage us to think more carefully about how our meals end up on our plates.

Picture by David Masters. Used under Creative Commons licence; ** Picture by Richard Wood. Used under Creative Commons Licence

the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

lost arts

There’s a lovely corner of the  Incredible Edible Todmorden website that’s given over to interviews with older residents of the town. In it they reminisce about the role of food and growing in their lives. There are memories of being in the Land Army, of brewing wine from potatoes, and even of keeping fish in huge printers’ ink tins in the cellar.

WW1 Land Girl with a pig. Picture from The National Archives UK

Barbara Diggle’s interview contains an astonishing account of how her granny used to buy a sheep’s head from the butcher every week and use every single part of it to feed the family. To me it almost sounds that something that took place on another planet.

If there was an invalid in the family or anybody just weak, we used to poach the brains … in milk and butter and they were served on toast and that was a delicacy. Now the tongue was cooked slowly in the side oven over the coal fire, no gas used, and it would be cooked slow over night and if it took a bit longer it didn’t matter, it was in another half day until it was cooked and then we would skin it whilst it was still warm because you can’t skin a tongue when it has gone cold; it sticks like glue. Then of course we would round it and put its head to a saucer with a plate on the top and a flat iron on top of that and that would shape it and it would press it overnight. Then if anybody came to tea we could slice it off and put it between thin bread and butter. The meat dropped off the bones then and there was plenty of tender meat on the face. She put the bones into another big pan that sat on the fire and she put onions, carrots, that she had grown in the garden, swede or something like that, turnip if we had it but she always had plenty of pulses. The fat that she had rendered off the joint as well or off the heads or anything, feet, you know would be clarified and that was used to seal the pots of the fruit.

I was stunned by the image of this woman labouring to make the most of every scrap of the sheep’s head, a part of the animal that I think most of us would struggle to have in our kitchens at all today. It seems this granny never wasted a single thing. She could make puddings from dock leaves, and her delicious Christmas lunch appears to have been conjured from little more than some breadcrumbs, dripping and root vegetables.

It would be silly to romanticise the kind of poverty that gave rise to such frugality but it isn’t just this woman’s economies that are striking, it’s also her consummate skill as a cook and a grower. I found myself asking what had happened to the arts that Barbara’s granny knew, arts of pickling, preserving and being able to create a meal out of whatever foodstuffs were to hand.

The history section of Todmorden’s website paints a picture of interaction across the generations that ensured skills were handed down almost unconsciously. There are memories of helping dad on the allotment, gathering watercress from the streams for mum, and of whole families working together to slaughter a pig and preserve the meat.

It’s all such a contrast with today. If you talk to people involved in Incredible Edible Todmorden now, they will often comment on how people simply don’t have the skills their recent forbears took for granted. Obviously this is not a problem that’s confined to Todmorden. Activities that were once second nature, such as making jams and pickles, are now shrouded in mystery everywhere. It’s common to talk of a ‘lost generation’, a group who somehow never acquired the skills of feeding themselves by growing veg or cooking from scratch.

Nobody seems able to explain quite how we got to this position. Just how and why were these essential skills lost? When did we decide to place some of the most important decisions we ever make – what to put on our plates – in the hands of a few multinational corporations?

I’ve had various suggestions made to me. It was the supermarkets – they  brainwashed us into thinking that everything can be available all the time for everyone. It was US television suggesting fridge grazing is better than shared mealtimes. It was the convenience foods of the seventies, when nobody understood the dangers of additives. Each of these might be a contributing factor, but none really seems to explain the whole of it.

I’d love to hear what others think. Do you also notice a loss of cooking and growing skills? And if so, how do you explain it? Did your parents teach you about food and gardening? Did your grandparents? Do leave your thoughts in the comments.