Supermarkets:Friend or foe? By Mwelwa Chungu, AFRican Londoner

Supermarkets:Friend or foe?
By Mwelwa Chungu, AFRican Londoner

Published on Fri, Feb 08 2008 by Mwelwa Chungu

As I write this I would like to apologise to Iquo, who I have recently learned is a non lactose vegan, for the meatfest that follows. 

I have been to the supermarket today. To most of you this will not sound like a topic worthy of discussion but most people who know me know how much I dislike supermarkets. It’s not only that they are often ruthless and dismissive in their dealings with the communities in which they operate but they are also temples to consumerism. The conspiracy theorist in me suspects that they are designed to draw you in and con you into purchasing more than you really need; they convince you to buy lower quality over quantity, especially when it comes to food. Fortunately recent headlines attest I am not alone. Despite this the majority of people still chose quantity over quality and shop at supermarkets.
 
I try to support the non chain local shops in my area, though I have to admit I am well served by organic grocers, a first class fishmonger and butchers, a Middle Eastern food hall as well as authentic Italian and Portuguese delicatessens within ten minutes walk from my house. I don’t know what New York or any of the other US cities is like in terms of the availability of quality food of varying ethnicity, but London is hit and miss when it comes to finding anything other than a supermarket in which to purchase food locally. I have lived in a part of London that will remain unnamed where goods at the closest corner shop were so extortionately priced it was a relief to go to the supermarket even though it was half an hour away on the bus.
 
However, there has been a growing movement in the UK, championed by our celebrity chefs, led most vocally by Jamie Oliver (the naked chef who last year challenged schools over the food they were providing our children) towards organic, ethically sourced, seasonal food. In his famous campaign we all learned about Turkey Twizzlers, pieces of meat that I am still not sure contain any turkey. His and other peoples efforts have resulted in a backlash against the supermarkets, one of whom have recently reduced the cost of their whole chickens to GBP1.99, despite a recent campaign by the aforementioned chefs against battery bred chickens. We have learned that not only do supermarkets undercut the smaller local shops, they supposedly do it by under paying the farmers who supply the various foodstuffs in their stores. 
 
I know it is hypocritical to preach about buying organic, ethically sourced food given all the other things I do that are harmful to the environment and myself (taking at least one long haul flight a year and drinking copious amounts of wine) but I like food and I want my food to be good. I cook a lot (probably in larger quantities than I should) and I want to know that I am giving my guests, people I care about, the best that I can afford. Besides where I come from everything tastes of what it is, beef tastes like beef, goat like goat, fish like fish, and village chicken, a chicken so flavoursome it is as unlike western chicken as it possibly can be. Even our vegetables taste different, so I demand more from my food than most supermarkets can supply. However, not being as poverty stricken as I would like people to believe, I can afford to pay a little extra for my food, only ever being embarrassed to admit I pay over the odds to have an organic vegetable box delivered to my door every fortnight when I am confronted with people whose families have less to spend on their weekly food bill than I spend for two peoples seasonal vegetables. 
 
My guilt has been felt by a greater part of society in the past few weeks when one of the programmes on battery chickens revealed how much working class people really have to spend on food. In my day job I use standardised household costs to calculate how much people are allowed to spend on their food. The numbers are astounding to me. The allocation is GBP 35 per adult and GBP 25 per child. The child’s allocation is what I budget for my lunch alone and Mr R and I spend the same as a family of three’s allocation on the rest of our food (that would explain our growing girth!). This discrepancy has led to the argument that organic food is the reserve of the middle classes. Perhaps is, although my retort to that is people in my village eat organic food and they are supposedly living on $2 a day or less. This is because they have access to cheap chemical free food. Granted they grow it themselves, but that would tell me that the problem is not the cost of food but the cost of production of food. I find it laughable that let your chicken run free cost more than keeping it in a space smaller than a piece of A4. It seems to me that that food problem has less to do with class than it has to do with the amount of land that is available for agriculture. 
 
My country is large and we value food, so it stands to reason that we would make space to grow food be it vegetable or meat based. It is, however, difficult to farm vegetables naturally in Zambia, so we value them. Historically we ate more vegetables than we did meat, a fact also attached to the cost of food, in terms of opportunity cost. Killing a cow deprived you of milk more than it nourished you, for regardless of the value of the nourishment that its meat gives you; a cow produces milk for far longer than it will ever give you meat. I grew up being served a meat dish accompanied by several vegetable dishes. I cannot imagine a dish such as some of the Nigerian ones I have tasted in London that have meat, chicken and crayfish being served in Zambia. We would see that as greatly indulgent, only having the dishes cooked separately for special occasions. We lived as much in harmony with our animals as our hunger would allow.
 
Having rumbled on this long I suppose the moral of this story is that I feel it is immoral to argue that organic food is a class issue. We as a society should find a way of making healthy, ethically produced food accessible for all, rather than trying to justify the supply of non food to the less privileged members of our society. And that is all I am going to say about this today (yes you can all breathe now!).

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