The four largest supermarkets now own an 80 percent stake in the British grocery industry. We should not underestimate how wide-ranging the damage of this is, how deep a wound this is tearing into our food culture. The industrialisation of the food industry, in no small part down to the demands of the all-powerful supermarkets, is draining the environment, destroying agricultural diversity, erasing past artisanal traditions and drastically lowering the quality of humanity’s lifeblood – our food.
Carlo Petrini, the founder of the great and indispensable Slow Food movement, spoke at the Oxford Literary festival this March at Christ Church College. I was stunned by some of the information he presented in his talk to emphasise the need to deindustrialise food. His voice quivering with passion Petrini told us that since the start of the twentieth century the planet has lost 75 percent of its agricultural diversity, while just thirty plants now feed 95 percent of the world’s population. Petrini was also adamant that in the future our wars will not be over oil, but water, as the mammoth inefficiency of its use for agricultural mass production is bleeding the world dry.
Surely if interest in what we feed our bodies with is on the up, self-proclaimed ‘foodies’ are everywhere nowadays, we also have an increased responsibility towards the sourcing of our ingredients and opposing the harmful processes happening on a broader scale to satisfy our craving for convenience.
Not two days after hearing Carlo Petrini’s inspiring words I stumbled across an internet link for The People’s Supermarket in Oxford, finding what seemed to me to be a project that Mr. Petrini himself would have been proud of. The principle is a not-for-profit food co-op, a supermarket run by its members, for its members, sourcing its produce locally and selling it on at affordable prices. The organisation is currently undergoing the process of securing a lease in East Oxford and is holding a series of meetings to invite potential members to understand the aims and purposes of the project. The People’s Supermarket is now fully established in London and Oxford is to be the first of its kind outside of the capital
I spoke to Chris Waites, the man in charge of the Oxford Venture. “Lots of aims come together in ‘TPS’. Most important is to bring good quality affordable ingredients to local people. Our other main aim is minimising food waste – so much gets thrown away in supermarkets it’s almost criminal”, he said. “In supermarkets quality is irrelevant, the shape and size of a vegetable for example, must be standardised and perfect otherwise it goes in the bin. If it’s a bit small or curvy it gets chucked, regardless of taste” he continued.
Mr. Waites, 24, who graduated from Oxford University in 2008, wants to cut out the middle man and take produce straight from the tree and onto the shelves, proving that good food should be inexpensive. “The big supermarkets can basically do what they want. They manipulate their prices as a monopoly to screw over their customers and there is nothing anyone can do. So we are trying to take grocery shopping back. We are conditioned to think that the big supermarkets are cheap when they really aren’t” he said.
The People’s Supermarket will charge 20 to 30 percent less on general dry groceries and up to 70 percent less on fruit and vegetables. The organisation demands that its members work four days every four weeks thus only requiring a paid workforce of around one percent. Any profit will be reinvested back into the community, the local suppliers or the supermarket itself. Chris used one of the London branches as an example: “The surplus can be reinvested into anything dependent on the members, the members decide everything. At the Hackney ‘TPS’ they have set up a crèche with reinvestment. We want to be a focal point in the community, almost a big family, bringing people together for a good cause. This is what has already happened in London.”
A good cause indeed, and one with great potential to help spread a mindset that could halt the ever expanding and seemingly unstoppable corporate supermarket snowball. Chris told me that the response in Oxford has been very positive and that they already have a committee and a number of potential members in place. He hopes that the Oxford branch could be the start of something much bigger. “Oxford could be a trailblazer, it could see the scheme go national and not just stay a nice idea. I would love to see lots of communities across the country doing a similar thing and adopting the ‘TPS’ model”, he said.
Projects such as this really are a breath of fresh air. We must look beyond our personal concerns and embrace organisations like The People’s Supermarket as a way of wider preservation. Not just a preservation of our individual health and enjoyment of food, but of our artisanal and traditional producers, of our perishing environment and ecological diversity too.
This article appeared in the Oxfordshire Guardian in April 2012.