How do you feel about large supermarkets these days? I’ve become increasingly frustrated with them and in particular since the pre-Christmas price wars that once again highlighted the fact that since their arrival in our slightly out-of-town shopping centres with their free parking, that village and town high streets have been slowly boarding up their windows and closing down.
It niggles me that supermarkets manipulate us to buy certain goods, that we repeatedly fall for their wiley ways, and that ultimately what we’ve gained in the convenience of being able to buy everything on our shopping lists under the one roof, we’ve lost by our village and town high streets losing their souls.
A big chunk of my childhood was spent growing up in a village store in a rural area of south-east of England. For years, Mum got up at dawn and for 6 days a week headed to one of the cold, draughty outbuildings in the 200-year-old property that was part of our shop and home. She’d take delivery of the piles of newspapers that were delivered, ensuring they were ready for the paper boys and girls to sort and post through doors before they headed on to school. On Sundays Dad and I completed the entire paper round delivery, giving mum and the rest of the gang and well needed lie-in.
During the weekdays, Dad would head off for work and Mum would walk with us down the long, quiet lanes past the fields of potato pickers to our school, before heading back home and opening up the shop. She’d spend the day chatting with customers, listening to all the village gossip, its highs and woes, and often times just being a point of contact for isolated men and women. When Mum locked the doors at night, she came in to the kitchen, lit the fires, prepared a home cooked dinner, before sending us off to bed to give her some quiet time to attend to the shop accounts, staff wages and other associated paperwork that are part and parcel of small business life.
Mum sold everything from fruit, veg, meat, bread, stationary, sweets, groceries, slippers, cement and kerosene and our weekly family outing was to the cash and carry. Mum was renowned for her home baked ham. My Dad also drove a van full of food around the village once a week, so that people without transport could top up their cupboards, offering an early model of food delivery that was commonplace back then. Ours was a typical village in its time, with a doctor’s surgery, a police station, a bakery, school, pub, church and post-office, as well as a mixture of council and privately owned properties. I learnt a lot about hard work and the importance of communities, growing up in the hive of one.
On reflection my upbringing is probably the key to what makes me so passionate about community now and my gives me the drive to help make necessary changes that might ensure our children’s survival over the coming years as we face the uncertainties of food sovereignty in a warming environment..
However, this isn’t a post about my childhood or the big, bold supermarkets that have become our blessing and our curse. It’s about a movement that’s rippling across Ireland that with our help, can make significant changes to the way we approach food and to individually become involved with the nexus way of thinking mentioned a short while ago on world water day. This post shares a few ideas about something we can do to claw back some of the best parts of a community lifestyle – the companionship and our relationship with food from producers to smaller shops and ultimately us, the consumers.
At the weekend a group of very committed people travelled from afar to share experiences and knowledge at the third CSA conference held in Cloughjordan Eco village.
Expertly facilitated by Davie Philips, we came together to talk about real, honest to goodness food in the form of community assisted agriculture (CSA), community food co-ops, community food buying schemes, community shops and community gardens.
If this is a new way of thinking to you and not something you’ve come across before, here’s a quick run down of just a few of the projects that are currently being run in Ireland that might give you ideas to initiate or get involved with in your area.
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
Cloughjordan eco village were the first community I heard of that practice this model of producing food for the people, and are by no means the only one. If you’re interested in finding out more, their community farm runs tours and training events to promote and educate others about setting up and operating their own CSA.
The concept of a CSA projects is very simple. Instead of going to a shop and paying for your provisions as you need them, when you become a member of a CSA you pay a regular contribution (sometimes upfront) that covers the wages of the growers as well as the running costs and admin of the operation. In return, food is delivered to a central point for you to collect.
The food is fresh, it’s seasonal and the producers care passionately, not only about the sustainability of the farm and produce (in Cloughjordan’s case, the food is grown biodynamically and organically) but about growing the most optimally nutritious food they possibly can that hasn’t been diluted by industrialisation.
As a consumer and member of a CSA, you have the challenge of eating and cooking seasonally throughout the year, but the knowledge of exactly where your food has come from and how it was grown with no packaging, retail and very few transportation costs. You might even have given a few hours helping the farm out at a busy time and you’re certainly able to watch your food growing, but not have the worry of growing it yourself.
Community Co-ops/Groceries and Food Buying Schemes
The essence of a co-operative is that the business is owned by and run for the benefit of its members (and not directors and shareholders). Membership is made up of both the consumers who shop there and the workers who work there. Membership is open to all.
Dublin has an established food co-op and Oliver Moore recently shared the story in his blog of Limerick Community Grocery’s journey. It’s early days for them but the fact that the group involved with the project in Limerick are hoping to make their’s the first cooperative city, is inspirational.
Community Food Buyer Schemes
These schemes work on the premise that buying in bulk is cheaper. By pooling their buying power and ordering food in bulk direct from suppliers, a group of people can buy good food at a more affordable prices.
Small food co-ops or buying groups work by collecting together everyone’s orders in advance, other models are run more like food businesses and order the produce from suppliers and then sell it to their customers via stalls, bag or box schemes, mobile stores, shops or other types of outlet. OOOBY’s would be an example of this scheme working well, with one in operation in Wicklow at Carriag Dulra Permaculture and Organic Farm for some time now.
Community gardens are usually small food gardens where the work and the resulting produce is shared. They’re generally too small to provide food for all the gardeners to take home or to set up box schemes, but they’re good social spaces that encourage and educate people about food and in particular vegetable growing. People can learn how to grow their own food in community gardens and take the knowledge home with them and replicate it, or they can just drop in and get their hands dirty, happy that they are at least connecting with the soil on a weekly basis. Community gardens can be incubation tanks for other projects such as those mentioned above and are increasingly being used to teach people how to create small, social enterprise projects.
This is a non-profit member supported organisation that showcases sustainable agriculture and artisan food production, connecting producers with consumers, often educating the public where food comes from, how it’s produced and helping to create positive social change. Keith Bohanna of Biabeag has been working with Highbank Organic Orchards recently to hold regular “meet the food producer” slots that have been very popular. At these events small food producers honestly share the highs and lows of their profession and passion. As the community gardeners I worked with found out at Savour Kilkenny Food Festival last year, when consumers connect with food producers, we’re much more likely to buy from them.
CSA Conference Outcomes
There are many more initiatives happenings round the country and one of the outcomes of the CSA conference is that a list will be made of all the known ones that we will be able to find and link into. If there isn’t a food co-op, CSA or community garden near you, an opportunity to create one is being encouraged.
TV presenter Duncan Stewart is spearheading a “Get involved” campaign with local newspapers, a local sustainable community initiative that will encourage every community to become more food or energy aware. The scheme hopes that projects will link up and to a certain extent, compete with one another, and that all the knowledge learnt can be shared.
The Get Involved campaign will give every one of us the opportunity to become more connected at community level and offer us the chance to take back some control over what we eat and how it’s produced.
It will only work if we do as the campaign title suggests and “get involved”. I for one, am really looking forward to hearing more and supporting the community gardens I work with to come up with ideas for this initiative and I hope you will too. I would love to see a CSA scheme set up in my own area but whether it happens or not will depend upon the will of the people.
So what do you think? Am I living in the romantic past or do you think we have it in us to take back control of our food systems in time to survive the challenges global warming will throw at us? We live on a small island with a small population that’s more than capable of feeding itself. Have we got it in us to do it, to make the necessary changes and to reconnect with our food?
photo credit: Martin Pettitt via photopin cc
photo credit: Anguskirk via photopin cc
Thanks for the mention Dee and yes as we learn more about small scale food production our connection with the producers increases and we are likely to support them more regularly if we can.
On CSA thanks for the updates from Cloughjordan, paints a really hopeful picture.
You’re welcome Keith, it’s so important to get the word out and although I missed most of the cheesemaker talk, Ian’s feedback was very positive. Working in Intel as he does, he finds people are generally very disconnected with food and was saying how important it is for talks like that to inform. People won’t change habits if they don’t know any better.
I would love to support more local suppliers but it’s never been easy. The farm shop is a significant drive away, the Athy farmers market has gone. Even when it was there it was a place to get a few treats, I couldn’t have done a weekly shop there. Now like most people I go to the supermarket. There is no fruit and veg shop in town so everything happens in Supervalue and Lidl. I think if community shops are ever to retake market share they have to appeal to those who go to the supermarkets. They have to have quick convenience food for those who are used to it and rely on it. Buying local surely cannot survive on artisan foods that would be out of the budget of many families.
They are never going to be able to compete on price so it will be a hard slog. There is also a perception that food in Tesco is cheap which is not always the case. They may be better on KVI products but other food in usually more expensive and with shorter shelf life. I fell less guilt for shopping in the town centre in Supervalue that does support some local producers but breaking my supermarket habit would be a hard thing to do.
I think we need to address
1. The perceived time it takes to shop in more than one shop
2. The perception that shopping local is for middle class people
Sorry this comment is a bit disjointed!
I agree 100% with you Amanda. We’ve gotten so used to the convenience it’s hard to change. We’ve switched (mostly) to a butcher and shop in local Supervalu /Aldi for the rest. As you say, no real alternatives for us as a family of five at the moment. The great thing about coops/CSAs is that farmers work with consumers and don’t try and rip them off. The majority of the public wouldn’t know how to begin to set one up though. I kindof think if we can firstly inform that there are alternatives, and they work, people might be more inclined to find out how to start them so it’s something I discuss at the community gardens.
Brilliant Dee. As one who lives in the middle of “agricultural land” I am very sad to say that there is NO food grown for miles around here that isn’t meat……Have just come back from Rome where courgette flowers and artichokes were in season….this is what everyone was eating. Likewise at this time of the year in Berlin it will be Asparagus in season…..everywhere….grown locally. Look we don’t grow enough plant food any more, don’t eat and celebrate seasons, rely too much on exporting animals. Everything that you are doing can only turn this around and I support it all the way. Sorry for the rant. Must admit if it wasn’t for Lidl fresh produce I would be lost out here!!!
Thanks Catherine. What’s so great about attending a day like the CSA conference is meeting lots of others doing good things. And please rant away. The more who do, the more likely that changes will happen 🙂 sounds like you ate well in Rome, a lovely reminder of summer just around the corner!
Totally agree with Amanda’s points. I try to buy all my meat from our butcher (who isn’t located in town but slightly off the track on my way home) but even that is difficult as I’m not always heading that way when he is open. Similarly, I buy most fruit and veg either on my way to Kilkenny from a farm or at the market in Castlecomer on a Thurs or Fri but that’s not always possible either.
Something has to be done re the supermarket monopoly though _ I have a post in the wings about how they and the meat factories are really screwing the farmers and it is serious. I’d imagine vegetable farmers are in the same boat.
Loved reading about your childhood and your village Dee, reminded me of a village I lived in for a while in Somerset.
Thanks Lorna and glad to hear you’re going to cover the supermarket monopoly too. I deleted around two pages worth of notes on them as it wasn’t the message I was angling for and turned into a rant ! I was talking to community gardeners this morning about these issues. They’re angry/upset too about the way society has changed and feel so helpless as don’t know how to get out of the trap we’ve found ourselves in.
I love the csa principle I think there are real gaps in people’s lives that it can address. I am studyin horticulture in ITB and my thesis is asking how can hort be a part of a community development plan for Mulhuddart, I know gardening can bring all walks of life together on a neutral playing field I just need to show how ) your blogs an tweets are inspiring me so thankyou.
Thanks so much for that Yvonne, that’s kind to say – feedback helps to motivate me so works both ways 🙂 I’m sure you must have heard about Ballybeg CDP and how they’ve used horticulture to pull the community together? I’d love to hear how you get on/findings for thesis if it can help others. Please keep in touch.
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Excellent post. However, that first image – window full of sugar and food colourings – is it nostalgic or intended to show the lie behind the way food is sold to us by supermarkets? Sugar is now widely believed to be behind many auto-immune diseases. Any parent will tell you the problems brought on by giving coloured sweets like these to their children. Perhaps you could clarify why it is there.
Hi Hannah, the image was chosen as a bit of both. My childhood memories are of rows of jars of multicoloured sweets behind the counter that would be weighed into little 1/4oz paper bags. Noawadays supermarkets use other methods to entice us in. Sugar has been my own lifetime battle, probably as a result of growing up in a sweet shop and is the reason, much to the dismay of our own kids, why we don’t keep cupboards full of cakes and biscuits at home unlike their friends. Hopefully they’ll grow up to appreciate why.
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Hello Dee, I have only just found your blog a few days ago and I have just come across this post. First off, This is a wonderful blog and you are doing great work.
We don’t go to supermarkets at all, ever! (I do go to centra occasionally, rarely spend more than 10 euro). I grew up in a family run grocery and my husband grew up on a family farm supplying potatoes locally. With Tesco, supervalu and now a lidl those days are over. My husband stopped growing potatoes as there was no longer a local market. The local supermarkets, (no longer locally owned!), wanted delivery to a central depot 2 hours away, which he did for a while before being disillusioned with trying to deal with supermarkets. Well we have long since moved on. We grow most of our own food but what we need to buy we get delivered every couple of months from a wholefoods supplier in bulk and organic. 20kg of rolled oats, 5kg bags of flour, 5 kg bags of rice etc… I rarely look at their catalogue, we just order the staples we need, and I reckon that we spend less this way than buying smaller non-organic pre-packs in a supermarket, not to mention avoiding impulse purchases. Been doing this for 12 years now.
Sorry, I have gone on a bit! Just wanted to let you know that I think it is great to raise awareness about the consequences of supermarket monopoly and your post is doing so in a constructive way which I really admire. Well done and all the best, Kim
Hi Kim and thanks so much for sharing your story which I really enjoyed! We just don’t have anything like that around here and even the local farmers markets are impossible to get to as they fall on days I’m unable to shop at them. I think I’m going to have to ask around and see if neighbours would be interested in buying in bulk because I can’t see a way out of our own dilemma given we have so little choice of good, ethically sourced food around.
Hi Dee, The whole food delivery supply shops all over the country, but also lots of people like us too, once you can be available for the delivery (that may not be easy for you), and some areas may not be on their route. I share the order with a friend so we can order more often. We do have to think ahead and be sure we only order what we will eat. It would be good to do with a group but it would be a fair bit of work and commitment. It is an altogether different approach to the instant availability of everything that supermarkets offer. Not for everyone but we haven’t looked back.
All the best.
Thanks Kim, it certainly sounds like something to work towards 🙂
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Hello Dee, I have just discovered your great blog. I also have frequent rants about supermarkets, they have destroyed the small towns and villages. Our village does at least have two butchers shop and a veg shop despite having Super Value and a Lidl. However we offer very little support to either the butchers or the veg shop, we are now in the happy position of producing all we need both meat and veg and fruit wise. Dry goods like a previous commenter are bought via a wholefood catalogue.
I think the perception that supermarkets give you everything that you need is a false one, who needs a selection of a doz ( I’m guessing here) different types of yoghurt, bread, detergent etc.? Buy two get one free offers not to mention the vast amounts of packaging that is used, the packaging in many cases will have cost more than the product.
I have on occasions done a price comparison between the prices in the butchers shops and that of Super value, not once has the supermarket been cheaper, plus our butcher can tell you exactly where the meat has come from, he does his own slaughtering.
The only use we have for a supermarket is for our pet food.
Sorry to have gone on so long about this subject, I just wish people would stop and think for their selves, and stop being mislead by big budget advertising.
Thanks for the comment and yes, it’s very easy in such a busy world to accept what we are given and the perceived ease with which it’s placed there for us. We were only discussing last night how good some people are at making us think we want and need things and supermarkets have it down to a tee! Well done with achieving so much of your own self sufficiency, something we’re still striving to do ourselves, and the reminder of just how important it is to support small and local 🙂
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