Local Food: Can We Ditch the Supermarket and Spend Less?
This article is the first in a Sociecity exclusive series on Local Food, where consider some viable alternatives to standard supermarket food shopping, taking an in-depth look at what it really means to be a ‘locavore.’
Local. Organic. In season. There exists a general growing curiosity about incorporating these concepts into our diets. We have heard these things are good for us, good for the local economy, good for the environment, but there are also many misconceptions and stopping blocks along the way. This week, we’re going to take a look at one of the biggest concerns, the money aspect.
The rhetoric often emanating from the mainstream media is that it is too expensive, or that ‘local’ and ‘organic’ are just aliases for ‘elitist’ and ‘upper-crust’. Let’s get something out of the way first of all, this rhetoric usually originates, funny enough, from wealthy folks with a financial interest in keeping any kind of local movement at bay. The wealthiest of corporations are built around the concept of cheap, industrially-produced goods; with few exceptions any effort to build local economies poses a threat to them. That includes farmer’s markets. In a big way. The idea of a direct-to-consumer relationship with local food producers has sent shivers down the spine of many a corporate CEO and investor because it puts people and the environment ahead of profit. It’s a deeply troubling issue in and of itself, but I’m afraid, is a story for another time.
Suffice to say, hand-grown local food tends to cost more than the supermarket industrial variety and there are many reasons for this, some real (nature driven) and some created (profit driven). Still, this is looking at cost and/or value from a purely economic standpoint when, in reality, it is likely not the most beneficial way for you and I to see value.
For us as consumers, when it comes to food, the word ‘value’ can have two meanings 1) It is synonymous with quality and nutritional value to our body to our local community, or 2) it is value in a purely economic way, having little or no bearing on the value of our own health, or that of local economies which feed into vibrant communities.
The average UK household throws away over $1,100 in food each year, in the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, that’s more than $2,200 per family each year.
At the supermarket, at the home goods store, the ice cream shop, or wherever else we shop, we tend to choose the second of these two definitions for value. So if we are serious about our health, about living a ‘good’ life, about being even remotely caring for our environment, why not chose a different definition of value? Why not choose the definition that values ourselves, our communities, and our environment?
The largest reason for most of us, is that the system of how we buy food makes it extremely difficult to think of value in this way. Of the advertisements that come to our door for supermarkets each week, how many talk about health or quality before value? Sales and discounts permeate these ads because it is not in the best interest of these purveyors of food to talk about quality. Quality reduces profit — unless you are Whole Foods, in which case quality gives you the excuse to push your profit margins five-times higher than other food retailers.
Regardless of the difference in price between a farmers market and supermarket, it’s probable that most of us can actually lower our food bills by eating more local foods.
It’s been about two years since I made the mental promise to switch from being a supermarket shopper to shopping as much as possible for in-season organic foods from local farmers markets. These two years have been a process during which I’ve learned more about food, eaten better, become healthier, and spent far less money than I ever have on what I eat.
How is this possible? First, it wasn’t an immediate change, and second, it took some patience and practice. In short order: I plan and learn about what I eat, take the time to cook, and don’t buy all of the extra junk that supermarkets are really good at making me think I need.
Plan More, Buy Less
If food purchased = money spent, then throwing away food = throwing away money. This one is simple: by planning what I eat a bit more carefully, a larger percentage of the food I purchase goes into my tummy, and a smaller amount goes into the trash. If this sounds trivial, remember that the average UK household throws away over £680 (~$1,100) in food each year. In the US, we toss out 40% of what we buy, more than $2,200 per family each year [The Telegraph, NRDC].
Far from being trivial. That kind of money alone could buy a years worth of organic local vegetables a few times over!
So, there’s a conversation we can have about the high price of local organic food, and then there’s what is perhaps an even weightier conversation we could have about how much money we throw away each year on uneaten food. This is not a call to finish everything on your plate. This is a call to buy less and to buy with thought to quality and the people behind the production of the food, and in turn, to enable yourself to redefine value in a way that is good for you, your environment, and your community.
Appalling as it may sound, this excessive waste is encouraged by supermarkets. It’s rather simple and profitable math: if a market can get consumers to buy 40-50% more food than they need, profits are up and investors are happy. [ Forbes | The Globe | etc... ]
It’s easy for us to see these facts and realize we need to change our habits, but it’s far more difficult for us to remember this while actually inside the supermarket.
In fact, the only way I can personally manage it is by not going to the supermarket in the first place — or by going in for a few items, no basket, and only my hands to carry things out. I use this tactic because I know that if I go in there with a huge, empty shopping cart and a list of what I need, the shopping cart will magically fill itself up with a few dozen things I don’t need. I’m really bad at keeping to my list, and Safeway/Krogers/Tesco are all oh so good at encouraging this habit.
The other option? At a farmer’s market, an individual might go for some apples, potatoes, onions, carrots, pak choi, corn, a steak, milk, cheese, and dark chocolate. They can buy these things in exactly the (small or large) amount they want. For a single person or couple, this is ideal when compared to the supermarket, where the potatoes might come in a huge plastic bag on sale, the steak pre-packaged, the cheese and milk 2-for-1, and before they know it, they’re already buying and spending more than they need.
Nor does it end there. Whether you are a single person, couple, or family, the supermarket does its best not to let you get away with just the essentials. It springs hundreds of things you hadn’t planned on buying at you as well: sale items, new products, limited editions, buy X get X free offers, extras of items that might possibly come in handy, and when in line, well, why not a candy bar, and then some mints to take the smell off your breath after.
The goal of the supermarket is to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it…
Every trip to the supermarket is a reminder that the goal of this place is not to give you what you need in the amount that you need it. The goal is simply to move product and sell in volume, and they are darned good at it for the necessary reason that they are a corporation and their responsibilities are to investors before consumers.
This backward-sounding responsibility is a big part of why we end up throwing out 30-50% of the food we buy.
I thoroughly reject the idea that profit is the primary motive for a business which is meant to deliver people basic nourishment. Whenever possible — I know, it’s not always possible — I opt for something else, and that something else is most often a local farmer who I can look in the eye, have a chat with, and buy directly from.
A farmer who is able to make a living on a small plot of land because there aren’t layers upon layers of industry taking profit from them.
A farmer who doesn’t put aisles of candy, sale items, pre-packaged food from factories, and other junk in between me and the food I need.
A farmer who sells me what are some of the best tools for a healthier life.
While the supermarket may seem to offer better ‘deals’ for your wallet than a local farmer, for the majority of consumers, that trip to the supermarket could easily end up costing more both in the short term (weekly food bill) and long term (hospital bill).
Patrick is founder and director of SocieCity, where he works with a transdisciplinary cast of creatives and sustainability practitioners to inspire social and ecological wellness through story and creative action. He has produced public artworks, gardens, workshops, films, essays, and other award-winning projects in North America, Europe, and Asia. He also serves as arts and events editor at