Shopping Beyond the Barcode

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When I go into a supermarket I find myself in a mild state of panic. Even with a list to anchor me I wander anxiously from aisle to aisle, failing to find exactly what I need, my sub-conscious subliminally being bombarded with cleverly-contrived marketing messages that make even me doubt my resolution (mostly pretty strong, once you see through branding little packaged food is very tempting any more) that I don’t need any of this stuff. And there is so MUCH of everything!

I am thrown into indecision over whether to buy organic, or home-grown but awash with chemicals; I can’t tell whether that meat is as pinkly fresh as it seems or if once I remove its plastic it will turn within a day and as for traffic light labelling systems, it’s more stressful than re-sitting my driving test. Worst of all there is NO ONE to ask, or no one that knows much about the produce.

On top of all this is the sneaky assault on the thrifty gene that the ‘two-for-one’ or worse still ‘buy two get one free’ offers makes; a false economy if ever there was one (except on dry goods or nappies maybe). It’s no wonder we throw so much food away in this country when we are lured into buying far too much. Add in a screaming child or two, sweets placed siren-like at toddler height, and all in all it is not a pleasant experience.

So, a while back, partly out of middle-class snobbery, I admit, I started shopping at the local farmers’ market. Well! What a revelation. Of course I had known about the increasingly-trendy London Farmers’ Markets since the first opened in 1999, founded by Nina Planck who has, unsurprisingly, gone on to write books including The Farmers’ Market Cookbook and Real Food: What to Eat and Why, about the importance of eating good, old fashioned food, grown properly and with respect for environment and tradition.

I had been a sporadic visitor to the central London markets in the early years, picking up dinner party supplies with extra environmental kudos to wow my party guests with, but I hadn’t really paid much attention to the REASON they were there or the impact they had on the farmers’ and consumers who shopped there.

Really, the idea is simple yet ingenious: to increase farmers’ incomes and bring quality, local and seasonal foods to urban communities. The focus on traditional breeds of animals and heritage fruit and vegetable varieties is another important aspect and as an organization, London Farmers’ Markets offer support and advice to farmers on what to grow, how to grow and how to sell produce.

For us, the consumers, many of us city-dwellers who only meet a farmer on a school trip or on holiday, farmers’ markets are places where you can learn about food, talk about food and meet the people who grew your vegetables, caught your fish and bred your chicken, cow or sheep. As food writer and activist, Michael Pollan puts it: ‘Socially as well as sensually, the farmers’ market offers a remarkably rich and appealing environment.’

Once you have children this appeal increases thousand-fold. Not only do you have the educational opportunity of teaching your children where food comes from, how different meats come from different animals, how strawberries are in season in summer, apples in winter, you have no problem with them eating anything at grasping level. Rather than reaching for a packet of sweets, unpaid for and unhealthy, they might take a proffered slice of rare-breed sausage, a cube of raw cheese or a slice of home-made cake.

Stall holders at markets tend to dote on children, remembering and treating regulars, accommodating the skips, hops and jumps of a small child that are so unwelcome in a supermarket aisle. The children feel important, are asked their opinion: ‘do you like sausages, then?’ and they learn that you taste food, ask questions and think about food before you buy it.

My small daughter insists on her own basket at the vegetable stall, filling it randomly (last week) with a few beans, a spear of asparagus, a whisp of tarragon, a carrot and 3 tomatoes. The stallholder obligingly accepted her wares, put them in a small paper bag and gave them back for her to clutch in her sticky hand until we got home. Now how special does that make you feel when you are two years old?

Children are more likely to eat foods they have helped choose too, and seeing foods NOT in a packet, sold by individuals in an open-air environment where there is often more going on; music, the butcher’s barbecue and even Morris dancers have been in evidence at my local market over the last six months.

Michael Pollan advises us well as far as our health is concerned when he says stick to the edges of the supermarket where the fresh fruit and vegetables, meat and fish is placed, and stay out of the centre aisles, the domain of chemically-engineered ‘food-like substances,’ but he advises us best when he says stay out of the supermarket all together.

The argument is often made to me, even by friends who live in larger houses and earn far more money than I do, that a farmers’ market is a kind of glorified delicatessen and there is no way they could afford it. In reply to this I would say two things:

First, yes, the prices are sometimes comparably more, for example for meat and fish, but they are fair. Fair to the producer and fair for the quality you are buying. You get what you pay for when you buy a premium car, why not a steak? It makes me furious that we have a mentality in this country that food has to be as cheap as possible, regardless of what it takes to get it that cheap – this is simply not sustainable and should not be our expectation. But that particular rant is for another post.

Second, you might pay more for the items you do buy but you won’t spend anything on the unnecessary, heavily-marketed items the supermarkets specialize in. You will spend your money on 100% real food, and nothing on processing costs, fake-food engineering and said fake food, marketing costs, shipping costs and unwanted packs of sugar-laden rubbish you had to buy to keep your kids quiet.

It may seem impossible to keep out of the supermarket but even with two young children I mostly do, certainly for fresh food (and dry goods and other household necessities can be safely bought online with relatively little stress). Yes, maybe I spend slightly more on my weekly groceries (though I wouldn’t necessarily say this is true) but it is money well spent both for my family and for those I buy from. More importantly I don’t throw any of it in the bin and best of all, I actually enjoy buying them. How often can you say that about a trip to the local Tesco superstore?

For more information on the London Farmers Markets visit their website: www.lfm.org.uk

To find a certified farmers’ market elsewhere in the UK click this link: Farmers Markets

In the US look at the Local Harvest site to find markets and CSA schemes

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