Rambutan for the rich, beans for the broke: When big food stores move out of town, the customers left behind pay the price with their health. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
YOU NEED to be a botanist in Sainsbury's these days. Pushing your way past the papaws, tayberries and New Zealand horned melons, you stumble into a clearing thick with rambutan and physalis. It is almost a relief to get back to the rhubarb and the Granny Smiths.

This is the fresh-fruit counter at a new superstore and it is packed full of vitamin C from exotic sources: the rambutans are from Thailand, the physalis from Colombia. For middle-class dinner parties, they make a good ice- breaker. For millions of others, the message is less wholesome.

According to EC criteria, there are around 12 million people in poverty in Britain: their disposable income is less than half the average. During the 1980s, while the nation as a whole was eating more fibre, fruit and vegetables, thousands of poorer families were seeing their diets worsen. Some larger households in 1991 were eating only a third of the fresh green vegetables they consumed in 1980; their meat and fresh fruit consumption halved.

Many health specialists believe we are seeing the emergence of a 'two-tier' diet in Britain - one for the well-off, another for the poor. The implications for health are enormous: vitamin C plays an important role in the prevention of cancer and heart disease, for example. Unemployment, coupled with taxation policies and cuts in the real value of social security benefits, is partly to blame. But there is another, less obvious culprit - the supermarket wars.

In the pursuit of larger floor areas, better-off customers and bigger margins, firms such as Sainsbury and Tesco have been deserting the city centres for leafier suburban and edge-of-town sites. In 1988, for example, 65 per cent of new superstores were opened on the edge of towns but only 10 per cent in shopping centres. As a business strategy it has been extraordinarily successful: Sainsbury, the market leader, announced this month record profits of pounds 733m. But what about the people left behind?

According to Spencer Henson, a retail economist at Reading University, the costs have been borne by consumers, in terms of time and transport, but they have been 'prohibitively high' for people without the use of a car, the poor and the physically disabled. 'Low-income consumers, who in any case spend a higher proportion of their income on food, are often unable to reach the food shops with some of the lowest prices in the UK.'

This ought to be good news for the corner shop. But it often no longer exists. Since 1962 the number of independent grocers has fallen from 116,000 to 32,800.

Many critics believe the supermarkets used their market dominance to drive out the small shop - negotiating deals with manufacturers which mean they can sell products well below list price. Some of the savings are passed on to consumers in lower prices; the rest boost their profits. The big food chains' profits have quadrupled over the past decade.

According to Dr Henson, however, the flight of the superstores created a 'vacuum' in town and city centres. Increasingly it has been filled by the discount store.

The rise of the 'pile it high, sell it cheap' shop is a phenomenon of recession that promises to outlast it. Kwik Save, already the third biggest retailer of packaged groceries in Britain, is opening a store a week. European groups such as Aldi, Netto and Carrefour are being followed to the UK by Costco, an American warehouse club, which plans to open its first sites this year. The market share of discounters, up from 7 to 9 per cent in the last two years, is forecast to grow to 17 per cent within the next four.

Retail analysts point to the rise in discounting as evidence of the 'polarisation' of shopping patterns, between those with cars, jobs and choice, and the bus-borne bargain-hunters. It also means a more polarised diet. A Sainsbury superstore might offer 15,000 products; Kwik Save sells 3,000 and some of the other discounters 600. Healthy foods are squeezed out in favour of tins and biscuits.

According to Suzi Leather, a nutrition policy researcher and member of the Ministry of Agriculture's consumer panel, the discount stores operate a safety-first approach to sales.

Poorer families want to eat more healthily, Ms Leather argues, but cannot afford it. According to a National Children's Home survey in 1991, 60 per cent of parents would buy more fruit if they had an extra pounds 10 to spend on food for their child; 54 per cent would buy more lean fresh meat and 38 per cent more vegetables; fewer than 10 per cent mentioned cakes, biscuits and snacks.

Yet since 1974, disparities in diet between the top and bottom social classes have increased. The richest fifth consumes 20 per cent more fresh green vegetables, 70 per cent more fruit and 400 per cent more fruit juice than the poorest fifth.

Ms Leather says she has met many women who, after paying all their bills, have only pounds 5 per person a week to spend on food. One survey of low-income mothers showed only half had tables to eat off. Many survive for several days on tea and toast so that their children can eat. Factors such as the rise in housing costs, the freezing of child benefit and the decision to tie benefits to prices rather than earnings have had a 'dramatic but insidious' effect.

'Research repeatedly shows that food expenditure, being often the only flexible item in the household's budget, is squeezed when times are hard.'

Because of the links between, for example, fruit, vegetables and stomach cancer, poor consumers run a 'significantly higher health risk'. One study estimated that low-income groups could suffer a 20 per cent higher death rate solely on the basis of diet.

Ms Leather believes the exodus of the supermarkets and the arrival of the discount stores reinforce such trends. 'Shops such as Kwik Save are very sensible about locating in poorer communities but they often carry very little in the way of healthy food. We already have a two-tier diet in Britain. This is exacerbating it.' Kwik Save says it includes fruit and vegetables in its stores where space permits: 500 of its 780 stores have greengrocers' concessions and the number is increasing as bigger shops are opened. It also has annual healthy eating promotions. If a product is popular, it stays.

Last week - again - the food retailers were talking about price wars, with Kwik Save ridiculing Sainsbury's claims to be cheaper. Past price wars have proved largely phoney. Kwik Save, according to the Consumers Association, is cheaper but not by much - pounds 28.95 against pounds 29.92 for a 33- item shopping basket. But the rhetoric obscures the real winners and losers. The superstores' move up-market has boosted their profits and diversified middle-class cuisine, but at a price. One person's rambutan may be another's vitamin C deficiency.

(Photographs omitted)