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Life without supermarkets: escaping choice overload

Laura Laker

14th June, 2010

Laura Laker discovers the joys of farmers' markets, the convenience of vegboxes, and the horror of plans for a nearby Tesco Metro that will threaten her local corner shop

Flyers have started appearing all over my neighbourhood opposing plans for a Tesco Metro almost next door to my local corner shop.

I went in search of the shop owner, who I found looking tired and distracted. 'It's killing us,' he said, as we stood outside the shop, gazing into the middle distance like two people witnessing the end of an era. 'This big company will take half my customers. I employ ten people. In the end it will be just me.'

'I am sure Tesco really needs that money,' he added, bitterly.

A recent UN biodiversity report suggests large corporations' profits are ultimately paid for by societies and ecosystems, which suffer reduced quality of life and environmental and social degradation.

I couldn't help thinking that when a supermarket moves in, communities lose local biodiversity, too, and whatever price savings we may benefit from are paid for in lost jobs.

The council seems to have little power in this situation, regardless of how councillors may feel about it. Bizarrely, the petition cannot oppose the effect on local businesses, only how the new Tesco would affect local traffic flow with its obligatory parking spaces and lorry deliveries.

Choice overload

Wandering into a Tesco Extra last week I was shocked by the Tardis-like hell of aisles stretching to the horizon, and the fifteen checkouts jammed with dazed shoppers. After months of small-scale shopping this grocery purgatory, with proud references to the store's support of 'local' initiatives, seemed decidedly surreal. I left empty-handed, but not before noticing with pity the harassed faces, seemingly overwhelmed with choice.

I could never fathom the supermarket vegetable sections, and gave up trying a long time ago. I would circle the aisles endlessly, rarely alighting on anything vaguely useful, and often coming away with only a bag of tangerines and some potatoes.

I now live above a dry-cleaner, whose staff receive my vegbox while I'm at work. This fantastic service of surprise vegetable delivery is a bit like having a nutritionist turn up at my door each week. I'd like to think I'm healthier for it.

Shop around

It seems ridiculous, but since using the local shops I suddenly started thinking things like: 'Rubber gloves! Where on Earth will I find rubber gloves?' I had no idea whether such things existed outside of supermarkets. I've since learned that shopping around is not only fruitful, but endlessly entertaining.

Two new farmers' markets have opened in my area alone in the last month, and I love the novelty of buying food outdoors, and tasting local, organic wine at 11am on a Saturday. Last weekend I met a woman who cycled her delicious spelt bread four miles from Walthamstow in a trailer; I learned about farmed mushrooms and bought one of the tastiest lettuces my friends and I have ever eaten.

It's fantastic to be so connected with your region, to know all these small industries are busily producing real, good quality food year-round, and to support them.

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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