Supermarkets are – super

They stand accused of everything from killing the high street to fuelling the foot-and-mouth crisis. But what have supermarkets done to deserve it - other than providing a large variety of nice, cheap food?

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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The foot-and-mouth crisis was depressing enough. But it was when everybody rounded on the supermarkets that I really wanted to cry.

Supermarkets, it seems, are always being got at – and the bigger they are, the more unpopular they get. The big chains have been accused of killing the high street through setting their prices too low; and have been hauled up in front of the UK competition commission on charges of creating a ‘rip-off Britain’, by setting their prices too high.

More recently, the UK prime minister accused supermarkets of fuelling the current UK foot-and-mouth crisis, by holding farmers in an ‘armlock’ to produce cheap food. Asda retorted acerbically, ‘We were under the impression that it was the ministry of agriculture, and not the supermarkets, which set agri-policy in this country’ (1).

A spokesman for Tony Blair later clarified that it was ‘ludicrous’ to suggest that the prime minister was blaming the supermarkets for foot-and-mouth – but others thought it was anything but ludicrous.

Why pass up an opportunity – any opportunity – to extol the virtues of ‘good’ (fresh, locally-produced, organic or wannabe-organic, sold in little shops, expensive) food over ‘cheap’ (frozen or could-just-as-well-be frozen, imported or mass-produced, supermarket-stocked, cheap) food? Why not take advantage of the moment to have a go at the supermarkets? Come on, you know they deserve it.

The thing is, they don’t. Supermarkets are the best thing to happen to us since French bread (which, of course, you can only get in the UK by buying it from supermarkets). They have transformed shopping from a daily chore into a fortnightly hour; they have made eating-to-live easily affordable and living-to-eat easily possible; they have made one-time luxuries into basics. And for all this, we castigate them?

‘The real price of cheap food’, opines writer Jeanette Winterson, ‘is a sickly, obese population and a chemically maintained countryside where disease flourishes, while habitat and species diversity is destroyed’. Maybe in her world. But for many, many other people, the real ‘price’ of cheap food is the ability to eat meat every day if they want to; the ability to buy fresh fruit and vegetables all year round; the ability not to starve (2).

‘I couldn’t work out why I could never get meat-and-potato pie to taste like me Mam’s’, said my aunt the other weekend. ‘Then I realised that she never put any meat in it.’ My Mum, one of five children growing up on a Nottingham estate, used to feed us with stories about how they would have meat once a week, and live for the rest of the week off the dwindling gravy in the stew-pot – culminating in the dreaded ‘cow heel’ (they pronounced it ‘cow eel’ and I always thought it was some kind of slimy fish).

We’re not talking grinding poverty here – this is how many people used to live. My sister and I would take the piss out of such tales of deprivation, as we ate our fish fingers and sausages and cold meat and spaghetti bolognese and various other manifestations of nutritious food that we realised, only later, was reasonably cheap. As a proportion of the family food budget, it probably cost little more than my Grandma’s stew-pot.

These days, if you’re not loaded you buy chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts – but you don’t have to go anywhere near those sorry-looking broiler chickens. And you’re not telling me that a meal made with supermarket value mince, or even a packet of frozen burgers/sausages/chicken nuggets, is worse for you than meatless meat-and-potato pie, or bread and dripping, or any of those working-class staples from the past?

Then there’s the variety. A common complaint issued by food snobs is that supermarket fruit and veg is all standardised – the stores won’t stock lopsided peppers or mean-looking garlic, and it is all a bit chilled and insipid. Yes, but at least you can get it! At least it’s not rotten! And you can get it all year round. How anybody thinks the golden age was the time when you could only buy oranges at certain points in the year, and nobody had ever heard of mange tout or kiwi fruit, and fresh fruit salad was a posh pudding, rather than a lazy excuse for one….This would have been a golden age with a serious Vitamin C deficiency.

As a comforting antidote to Jeanette ‘pestilence and disease’ Winterson, here’s UK supercook Delia Smith:

‘What, 14 years ago, had to be sought out in specialised food shops is now widely available in supermarkets up and down the country. Almost everybody now has access to good olive oil, fresh herbs, imported cheeses. I found myself over and over again deleting the words “or if you can’t get it…”.’ (3)

I used to grumble at Delia’s optimism, pointing out that alternative suggestions would be handy when one was forced to shop at Tesco in South Tottenham, London, where the only variety on offer seemed to be the variety of value tins. But all that shows is the extent to which supermarkets mimic social inequalities – in South Tottenham, a poor area, everybody from the local council to the local supermarket treats people like scum. So far as supermarkets can do anything about this, they should just be better – they should become more supermarkety, not less.

And there’s the efficiency of it all. On a rare weekday at home, I wander down to the market on my local high street, dodging young women with pushchairs and pensioners with canvas shopping-trolleys, and a shiver goes down my spine. This is what women used to have to do, every couple of days – go from shop to shop in the daytime, buying bits of this and that here and there, getting home exhausted. Now, the professional, working women have their children in nurseries, and do a weekly or fortnightly shop in an evening or at the weekend, leaving the market free for the people who want to potter and socialise.

Can you imagine having to shop according to what you can fit on the back of a pushchair, all the while negotiating your way down a busy high-street trying to hold the hand of your older child? At the big supermarkets, you have parent-and-child car-parking spaces, trolleys with single or double child-seats, even trolleys with baby-cots attached. You load the kids on to the trolley, and you load the shopping into a car or taxi – and it takes less than a Saturday morning. No government has ever told supermarkets to adopt family-friendly policies, but the growth of the supermarket has probably made a great deal more difference to a mother’s life than statutory paternity leave ever could.

Ultimately, what supermarkets have done is turn food shopping into an experience that you can take or leave. A friend of mine with no car, a demanding job and a flat up four flights of stairs has got into internet shopping in a big way. You tap in your order, and two strong men appear from nowhere with your weekly shop. It used to be the stuff of housewifely fantasies – now it’s something young professionals can take for granted.

In the big stores, only an aisle away from the buy-one-get-one-free family discount offers that only supermarkets could afford to give, you have the shelves for the busy and/or single people – the Chinese and Indian takeaways in a bag, that you just heat up in the microwave, and the bottles of wine and beer ready-chilled for immediate consumption.

On the other extreme, another friend tells me she spends three-and-a-half hours in the supermarket. ‘It’s so much better than clothes shopping’, she sighs, ‘because you can buy whatever you want’. Disposable income sits easily with disposable commodities – and yes, it’s nice to go shopping and find yourself confronted with four different types of fresh filled pasta, types and cuts of meat that you’ve never heard of, daft fancy patés, a ridiculously wide range of toothpaste, and species of vinegar for which you could never imagine a purpose. When your staple diet is cheap food, you can afford a few treats – the kind of treats you could never get from your local post office.

Personally, I generally find supermarket shopping a pain in the backside. On the rare occasions when I have time to browse the local shops, in search of something a bit different, I love it. But I have the choice. Where I grew up in the countryside, you can buy excellent meat from one village, great bread from another, interesting cheese and cheap veg from the town market – and you can take your pick of massive Sainsbury’s stores in the surrounding area, where you can buy everything else. The supermarkets have not wiped out the local shops; they just mean that you’re not dependent on them.

In short, supermarkets are great. They are not perfect, of course – the food could be better and cheaper, and there could be more of different types of it. But the last thing we want is to go back to the days of the local stores, with their wizened vegetables and pricey meat, where wine comes in one variety and French bread doesn’t come in any variety at all. Thanks to supermarkets, we can still get meat in the middle of a national foot-and-mouth crisis; thanks to supermarkets, we can finally get decent food in the UK. And for this, we castigate them?
Read on:
Read more In defence of modern life
Read more on the Foot-and-mouth issue
(1) Guardian 6 March 2001
(2) Guardian 6 March 2001
(3) Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course, BBC Books, 1995. Buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)

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Topics Politics


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