Leave supermarkets on the shelf

Local grocery shops and farmers' markets can satisfy the public's growing desire to escape the stranglehold of the big five food retailers. By Phil Harriss
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Take a scattering of militant truck drivers, supermarkets with no more stock than you can see, and stew in widespread panic as the bread shelves empty. It can take a jolt such as the recent fuel crisis and its attendant shortages to remind us of two incontestable truths: that food is vital and our food system is precarious. So this month's Competition Commission report into supermarkets was frightening in its complacency.

Take a scattering of militant truck drivers, supermarkets with no more stock than you can see, and stew in widespread panic as the bread shelves empty. It can take a jolt such as the recent fuel crisis and its attendant shortages to remind us of two incontestable truths: that food is vital and our food system is precarious. So this month's Competition Commission report into supermarkets was frightening in its complacency.

Five corporations - Tesco, Sainsbury's, Wal-Mart (Asda), Safeway and Somerfield - now control half of the UK's grocery market. Throw in a handful of smaller operators (Waitrose, Iceland, Morrisons and the like) and the figure rises to 60 per cent. Verdict Research, a retail analyst firm, predicts that within the next five years, pan-European consolidation will mean just three dominant supermarket companies control what we eat.

Yet, despite supermarkets' stranglehold on the food system, alternatives are flourishing. Once you look elsewhere, the beginnings of new food networks interwoven with survivals of older, pre-checkout shopping patterns come to light. A hearteningly diverse collection of folk is attempting to bypass the supermarket system, forging links between producers and consumers, and in so doing rediscovering local food, almost forgotten species of fruit and vegetables, and the changing seasons. Not to mention having fun. Taking children to a farm so they can see the chickens that lay the eggs for tomorrow's breakfast beats the St Michael pants off a dreary procession along the neon-lit aisles.

Most city-dwellers have a ready-made alternative close at hand. Traditional street markets are an often-overlooked asset in our towns and cities, and a joyful sight in full swing. My old friend Ray Winch used to loiter around fruit and vegetable stalls in Oxford market on Wednesdays, waiting for prices to fall in the last hour of trading and then picking up a tray of pears for £2. Food co-ops - where low-income communities from "food deserts" (areas bereft of supermarkets and food shops) band together to buy their weekly essentials - are also becoming a feature of inner-city life. Community centres often serve as distribution centres for these embryonic shops.

But nothing indicates better the widespread desire for links to be established between consumers and producers than the current popularity of farmers' markets. Their numbers have mushroomed from one (in Bath) in 1997 to more than 250 today. John Jenkin and his wife Margaret, Countess of Mar, sell goat's cheese, honey, milk, lamb and eggs from their farm in Worcestershire, but also attend the farmers' markets at Knightwick ("a lovely social event"), Leominster and Ludlow. Jenkin never deals with supermarkets. "They'll grind you down to the lowest price and put a huge mark-up on it. I've known big producers be put out of business overnight by them."

An older, but important, version of producers' markets can also be found in country towns around England and Wales. The Women's Institute markets might not have the social cachet of their newer siblings, but they are excellent providers of local foods, as well as keeping alive baking, market-gardening and, yes, jam-making skills.

Individual producers, too, are looking to towns and cities for custom. The Farm Retail Association reports a fast rise in membership, with many new farm shops specialising in selling meat direct, and several undertaking food processing on the farm (making bison pies, for instance) to add value. The internet and farmers' markets enable producers to reach a wider range of customers. Bill Reynolds of Swaddles Green Farm in Somerset has been providing home delivery of organic meat to Londoners for 12 years, and has more recently moved into organic charcuterie, dinner-party specials and freezer meals. He holds uncompromising views on supermarkets and those who shop in them. "They have been massively destructive. The British save up, buy expensive cars, drive to supermarkets, buy filth food and take it home to their families."

But Reynolds has also noted that resistance is growing. "There are tiny cracks in the pavement left between the supermarkets - there are still a few people trading or trying to trade." The Guild of Fine Food Retailers is a collection of such shopkeepers. It has 250 members - running delicatessens, cheesemongers and butchers across Britain - and provides them with a list of foodstuffs guaranteed not to be sold in Tesco or Sainsbury's. Look for the stickers in shop windows.

Traditional food networks have not entirely broken down in the countryside, though even here, supermarkets dominate. Annabel Edwards lives in rural Shropshire and drives to a wholefood store for her main weekly shop. This is augmented by food from a tapestry of local contacts. "I can get roosters at Christmas from one friend, and there are people down the road I know who do pigs. I get an organic vegetable box from local suppliers, then in the summer I buy from a friend who has a vegetable garden."

More concerted opposition to the supermarket system is taking place in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. The Forest Food Directory lists 35 local producers who supply an astonishing variety of foodstuffs: geese, smoked eels, Double Gloucester cheese, partridges, perry and preserves. Kate de Selincourthelped to compile the pamphlet: "I'm now keen to make sure that the food listed in the directory is available in the local retailers as well." The Forest of Dean also has a Local Exchange Trading System (Lets) with "deans" for currency. Pots of honey might be exchanged for a dozen eggs, or some work mending a fence. Communities are being built around the new local food economy.

Rural communities could also indulge in what might be termed "honourable scrumping" - literally feeding off the inadequacies of the present food system. Last year, I discovered, too late, that an orchard of pears down the road had been left unharvested. The price the farmer could get for his crop wouldn't cover the cost of collecting it.

Cost and convenience are always cited as reasons for shopping in supermarkets. Yet on both counts the reasoning is found wanting. Annabel Edwards agrees. "It's a false belief that they are efficient. People go in thinking 'I've done the week's shop'. But you spend hours trying to find the bloody things you want, and then hours queuing."

As for prices, I have, in the past few weeks, bought good-quality tomatoes for 25p a pound (from an Asian store on the Ealing Road, Wembley), a huge, sap-oozingly fresh cabbage for 25p (from a wheelbarrow in Norfolk), and a dozen large, genuinely free-range eggs for £1.20 from Mill Farm shop in Shouldham Thorpe, Norfolk. Where's the competition?

Above all, the reason for bypassing supermarkets is the sheer fun of shopping elsewhere. Put another way, we have nothing to lose but our chains; we have a world to gain.

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