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Shopping - part 2 - supermarket minefields

"Grocery stores serve as a reflection of what is going on in society."

Good Housekeeping

In one of life's little coincidences I saw this Coles ad on the television last night. Now I'm not featuring it as a supporter of Coles over Woolworths or Aldi or anybody else, but in relation to that statement at the top of the page it's a really interesting thing to watch. I am also not saying that supermarkets are benevolent entities, but it's a very classy, very clever ad and I have to admit, very convincing. It's not very long - it's just an ad, and obviously, being an ad it is manipulative in any number of ways. Gruen would have lots to say I'm sure. However, it really does demonstrate what the supermarkets themselves see as the things that are likely to attract people to their particular store. And what are those things?

Well in the words at the end - Zero hunger, Zero waste, Zero emissions. And aren't these the big issues of today? Honestly it's a mind-blowingly clever ad. First of all it gives you the warm homely feel of them having been around for a long time in Australia - the 'we're just part of the family' vibe. Then there are glossy shots of various producers emphasising sustainability and environmental concern - real people providing carefully monitored foods of all kinds, Then there's their work with Second Bite whereby waste food is channelled into charity kitchens to feed the poor, and finally there is a summary of their work towards zero emissions. And they are not alone - Woolworths, for one, I'm sure could say all of the same things.

In very recent times, Coles has deleted all plastic reusable plates and suchlike replacing them with paper and timber. Which is all good, but possibly not quite genuine as they are simultaneously promoting a 'free' collectable range of reusable plastic picnic ware. It does look very nice, and it is reusable, but I guess ultimately discardable and not necessarily recyclable. Nevertheless, like the disappearance of the plastic bags at checkout it all helps. If not quite enough. You can still get plastic bags at the checkout - they will last longer and are recyclable, but still they shouldn't be there.

There are pluses and minuses and hidden agendas all over the place with the latest 'sustainable' push but it does indeed demonstrate that supermarkets are wonderful places to see trends. Supermarkets don't invent trends - they respond to them and reinforce them.

Supermarkets are where we all shop. I saw on The Drum last night, that even Angela Merkel shops in a supermarket like an ordinary woman. But of course the press noted the four bottles of wine. But hey she's buying it in the supermarket not in some posh upmarket wine auctioneers.

I doubt that Nigel Slater and most of his foodie colleagues shop much in supermarkets though.

For the rest of us though it's a bit of a minefield isn't it? The other day I went in to buy four items and came out with a full bag and some $50.00 the poorer. The checkout chick and I laughed about this. I can afford to. You have to have an iron will not to be tempted by specials, by something new, by something you forgot you 'needed', by some delicious looking fruit, vegetable, cheese or meat. But that's Ok for me. I can afford it, I have a freezer and a large pantry. I have choice - and the choice in the supermarket is bewildering. Do you remember the confusion of the Eastern Europeans when they got to see what was available in Western European shops?

However, if you are poor you have to make your choices very carefully. There is a very revealing article in The Huffington Post, written by Tamara Gane in which she revisits a time when she was very poor.

"The less money you have, the more time you spend at the grocery store. This might sound counterintuitive, but when you have only $12 in your pocket, you have to consider each purchase carefully. This sort of deliberation takes time." Tamara Gane - Huffington Post

You cannot buy bulk specials for example. Consider even simple purchases like the dreaded COVID era toilet paper. Of course it is cheaper to buy a large packet of 24 or so toilet rolls, but if you have very little money you can only afford what is literally the cheapest, which may only be two or three rolls. I don't think they sell single ones. Which reminds me of that student trip to America, when Carole and I could often not find small enough sizes or quantities of what we wanted - everything started at 'big'.

"Being poor means living in the moment and buying the smallest quantities of everything while the rich family stuffs packs of meat into their freezers." Tamara Gane - Huffington Post

You look carefully for the 'reduced for quick sale' items - although these can be a trap too. I almost bought a reduced organic chicken the other day, as I was feeling mildly extravagent, until I realised that there were only big ones and I really didn't want a big one. And even at a reduced price it was still at least twice the price of the cheapest. These days in Coles, which is where I was on this occasion, I can at least appease my conscience a bit because their chickens are RSPCA approved, but it's hardly corn fed, free range, organic and hormone free, let alone individually tracked to its producer.

The supermarkets - all of them - have cottoned on to the fact that we do in fact care where our food comes from - whether we are concerned about cruelty to animals, buying Australian, or watchful about additives and they make great play on this in their advertising. That Coles ad is just the latest in a long line. Still - the zero emissions thing does put the government in a poor light don't you think?

It is possible to eat well on the cheap, but you have to work at it. You have to not be tempted to buy things not on your shopping list - yes you should have a shopping list. I rarely do I confess. You have to carefully check the price to see which brand is cheapest - if that's your criterion - and which size is the cheapest - it's not always the largest. Then you also need to worry about where it comes from, whether it's sustainably farmed or sourced - not always possible to know; whether there are bad things in the list of ingredients - salt, sugar, chemical sounding things ... You need good eyesight for that. Is it better to buy a jar of pesto than make your own? Have you taken your time and equipment into consideration on that one? And what do all those phrases like organic and free range really mean anyway? And apparently, according to Four Corners last night (which I did not see), in Europe anyway there are lots of very questionable things processed food - so watch out next time you are buying genuine Italian salami.

And can you read the small print anyway? The writing on the ingredients list and the nutritional information is tiny and, it seems to me, getting tinier. The ABC is about to launch a program about functional literacy in adults - with a claim that 40% of adult Australians are functionally illiterate. I have to say, as an ex primary school teacher, I would question that claim. Nevertheless there are indeed people who cannot read. How do they cope? How do they recognise the difference between cinnamon and nutmeg, or cinnamon and cumin say? How indeed, do they know what they are buying at all? Do they even recognise numbers - i.e. prices?

The thing is you need time, you need glasses or a magnifying glass, and you need enough education to be able to (a) read it all, and (b) understand what you are looking at. Oh - and you need to be interested enough to do all that too. I you're in a hurry you're probably not going to look too carefully.

The foodies may go on about the necessity of buying top quality, but this is an unachievable aim for most of us. Even if you can afford it, it takes too much effort to trek from distant specialist butcher, to distant specialist farm shop, to distant artisan dairy and/or bakery. If they are really artisan they may not even have a website so that you can order it online. And it's hardly going to be fresh, fresh, fresh is it if it has to come any distance.

Besides your local supermarket will have things that approach the truly artisan. Both Coles and Woolworths have delis stocked with expensive imported, and expensive Australian made cheeses, meats and suchlike. They both have 'finest' ranges which purport to include nothing but the finest ingredients - and indeed some of those products have won awards. They both now have much better than ordinary bread - and on it goes. What is available will depend on the demographics of your community - I was intrigued to notice for example that a Coles supermarket in Doncaster East, which has a larger Asian population than here, had a large range of Indian spices that you cannot get in mostly Anglo Eltham. It may well be that the prices are different too. When I lived in London in my early married days I worked in London's East End, where I shopped for food because in Hampstead where I lived the food was twice the price.

So yes I find supermarkets to be fascinating little microcosms of society. They tell you what people are eating and even doing - all that muscle building protein stuff for example tells you a whole lot of people are concerned with super fitness. What is on the shelves will tell you the kind of people who live in the area, and it will also tell you what the latest foodie trends are.

And if you are so poor that you can barely afford your next meal, then they will also contribute to Second Bite, Oz Harvest and similar ventures, or allow us richer people to donate actual food in the bin at the front of the store. Which, alas, I always forget to do.

I have become somewhat incensed of late by some statements made by the food gurus about quality and trendy ingredients. Equipment too. It's élitist and completely out of touch with ordinary folk - from the middle class to the extremely poor. Which is another reason why those supermarket magazines are also such a good indicator of what is going on in society, and their recipes include many - indeed most - which are aimed at the not very rich and the not very adventurous or advanced cook.

When I was a child we had no supermarkets and we shopped at a series of small stores, which may well have had superior products - the butter came in a slab I remember - but there was no way of knowing what actually was in that butter, and no way to compare the different brands. You had to ask for stuff. You couldn't just pick it up and read the label. Everything was way behind the man or woman behind the counter who was serving you. Butchers were probably more 'real' although a lot of our meat in England was imported so definitely not fresh. It had been frozen for many weeks on an ocean voyage. And all those packaged and tinned products, I'm sure contained many more additives and bad things than is allowed today.

The people who can afford the food that wins delicious. produce awards is unattainable except to a few exclusive restaurants and people in the know, people who can afford to indulge in such luxuries. The rest of us have to made do with the supermarket - and that's not such a bad thing these days. At least they will get to zero emissions long before the government does.

"If you’ve never had to make these kinds of decisions, you’re not in a position to judge. Tamara Gane - Huffington Post


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