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Committing to a life without supermarkets

Laura Laker

14th May, 2010

No-one enjoys supermarket shopping. But kicking the habit requires conviction, as Laura Laker reveals in the first of a new series...

I've thrown myself into supermarket detox a bit like one might throw oneself drunk into a swimming pool.

Without understanding much about the alternatives, only the knowledge that friends have succeeded in breaking away, I abruptly decided to escape the weekly supermarket scrum. Now, with the threat of a shameful retreat looming, I find myself with fast-emptying cupboards, and a mild sense of panic.

Visiting a friend in rural Somerset over Christmas I reached a shopping epiphany. After a volunteer trip to Madagascar, she left a life of consumerism for one of quiet rural semi-self-sufficiency, chickens and all. To my surprise, living in a small town with only a couple of ‘local' food shops, she hadn't visited a supermarket in almost three years.

Meanwhile, in London, I continued to repress anger at trolleys left in the middle of aisles and the never-ending checkout queues that left me feeling like my head would implode. Once, in a daze, I inadvertently wheeled someone else's shopping from the toiletries to the frozen foods before realising my mistake and embarking apologetically on some rare social supermarket interaction.

The more people around me were using alternatives, however, from food co-ops to local shops, the more I wanted out, too.

The Big Four (Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda and Morrisons) currently provide around 80 per cent of the UK's grocery needs. These huge operations employ fewer people, contributing less to the local economy than smaller businesses, which often struggle or fail in their wake. Their massive buying power benefits shoppers by reducing prices, but suppliers bear any unexpected costs, and many fear this prevents food producers from investing in better practices.

Now, with Tesco wanting to expand into house building, maybe it's time to swap a future of Tesco mini-villages for one of localised diversity.

Spoilt for choice

Living in Hackney, East London, I realised I am spoilt for choice from not only local vegbox schemes but a myriad of farmers' markets and food co-ops; all I had to do was decide where to start.

My first earnest trip to the nearby organic shop was a revelation: instead of the desperate supermarket bewilderment I was resigned to, I felt a sense of calm at the manageable scale and surprising choice there. I wandered around like someone who'd found shopping Nirvana, and was soon a regular.

I have to say, I am curious about the cost of this experiment, but friends have reassured me they don't pay over the odds for their non-supermarket foods. Riverford Organics, for example, claims it is 19 per cent cheaper than the supermarket. And this is before you consider the gains for wildlife, communities, and arguably, our health, of choosing locally-sourced organic food.

In addition, food co-ops are springing up all over the UK, often aimed at those on low incomes, employing the savings of bulk ordering, with the added bonus of ethical, sustainable frameworks.

For now, I've started a new vegbox order and I'm off this weekend to find my first local farmer's market. I'm on my way to finding a sensible alternative to the Big Four.

Laura Laker is a freelance journalist

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