Friday 9 March 2012

A Loyal Customer

We're here, we're queer and we don't shop at Sainsbury's (Graffitti in Oxford City Centre)
This is a post about shopping and a conversation we've been having for three years now in my Transition initiatives about relocalising food culture in East Anglia. Because when you're discussing supermarkets you are really discussing the industrialised food system and the producerist society we live in. It's a massive topic and one we will return to in our Diet and Environment Week in April, when I'm hoping to write about disentangling ourselves from Big Ag on the micro-level. Right now I'm looking at the macro-level and how there is life after supermarkets. Really.

Facing reality

So why haven't I shopped at supermarkets for four years? Because when you see and feel the system that supplies the store you don't want anything to do with them. Mostly we don't consider the food we buy or put in our bodies, or follow its track back to the field and the workers the way Mandy looked at bananas yesterday. We look at the show on the shelves, think in terms of convenience and price. However, if you look behind the scenes, at the machine that provides this endless array of convenient, cheap, stylised, fossil-fuelled food you come to different conclusions.

The facts are easy to find. Starting up the Low Carbon Cookbook in 2010 we draw up a list of books and documentaries, and all the issues appear on the table, from supply chains (Caroline Steel's Hungry City) and the cruelty and madness behind commerical meat production (Food Inc) to depletion of the world's fisheries (Charles Clovers' The End of Line). We discuss everything from waste to water to land rights. How come the world isn't having a rethink about everything? we wonder.

Because we are persuaded on all sides by marketing, and by our erroneous belief that we can change a system from within. We are grateful for justifications. I could say that the local Rainbow Supermarket has helped us raise funds for Bungay Community Bees, and provided a bus to The Wave in 2008, but this won't alter the fact it is still a supermarket, using the same buy-and-sell tactics as everyone else, that the "ethical" Co-op hastily backed down from the now notorious Workfare scheme and has contracts with equally notorious Texaco. All supermarkets are dependant on global supply chains, distribution hubs, tankers, mass abbatoirs, factories and refineries, chemical laboratories, tactics that grind down small farmers everywhere, in favour of corporate control. Invisibly, this machine grinds everyone and everything down in its relentless pursuit of profit. We have all the evidence we need to change our allegiance. How come most of us don't?


One thing I've learned: inner transition does not mean bringing to share our wibbly-wobbly "What About Me" emotions and pretending this is the earth speaking through us. The real inner challenge is to shift our inner governance towards our hearts, to break down the barriers in our minds that deftly separate one action from another. Our minds persuade us that having an idea is the same as making a move, allow us feel right on buying veg in the local organic market, and be in denial when we walk into Waitrose. Some of this shift work we can do on our own, but to be effective we have to hold our own in groups.

In the Strangers's Circle we are looking at our shopping lists and Naomi is wringing her hands. If her son doesn't have his frozen ready-made pizza with shrimp and pineapple he will be ostrasized by his peers and life won't be worth living.

Get a grip girl!

No one dies if you don't eat pizza! I like Naomi, I like sitting in her kitchen and the discussion we have around the table. I am not singling her out. She could be any number of women (and men) who have come towards me, holding their children before them, wailing and gnashing their teeth, as they assert their Right to Buy Turkey Twizzlers, or white sliced bread, or whatever goes into the trolley. It's Cheaper in Supermarkets, they chant like a mantra. There is no alternative. We are powerless to change. You vegan, you elitist, you communist!

Lucky for me we are not living in times when heretics come to a bad end.

The Circles are an alchemical space. All things are allowed here in the spirit of carbon reduction. We don't judge each other, but we don't pussyfoot either. Some things get realised in that space and acted on later. Tully will write about the disconnect in a blog a few days later and drop his "Tesco habit". Elena will write about palm oil and I will give up margarine. Norwich FarmShare will happen thanks to both of them and now dozens of people can connect with the land that grows their vegetables on the outskirts of the city. It's a process. Transition is a process. It demands that we face reality and make decisions. Those are not mind decisions though, they are heart decisions.

On the mind/body axis these kinds of move are almost impossible. Your body is addicted to that supermarket food, your mind can runs loops around your good intentions, you have been brainwashed by the Empire all your life. You engage in bouts of self-calming and duplicity, worthy of the Coalition. Your heart however can weigh up many factors at once, connect you with the feeling and spirit of things, break those separating walls down. It doesn't excuse itself and argue. It sees and it acts. One day the affair is over. I have been sleeping with Sainbury's and Waitrose, and Tesco's and Safeway. I realise I don't love them, or my time spent between their cold and heartless aisles.
That's the real subject of my blog today. What shopping with heart means, what can happen in a post-supermarket world.

Finding the pattern

Viens, ma petite, says a quavery voice and puts a sweet roll in my hands. I am four years old, shopping with my mother. Bayswater, London. 1960. M Pechon founded this bakery/patisserie in Queensway. Now blind and old, he spends most of his day by the door and when small children come through he gives them a roll. My early life is spent among shopkeepers, being given small gifts, feeling the physical world that nourishes me from the land outside the city, the sawdust of the butchers, the ice of the fishmongers, all manner of temperature and smell. When my friend Christine's father, Oscar Montanari, brings us a tray of peaches he imports from his native Italy I think I am in heaven. One day Stephanie Morgan gives me something green and crunchy to taste. Wow! I say what's that? It's a green pepper, she says. From Sainbury's. It's 1967. My mother is about to change her allegiance and get in the car to go shopping. I do not go with her.

Somewhere a pattern remains in our memory that makes sense of the world. In a time of unravelling that's a pattern that comes to me about local food and shops: home grown veg, home-made marmelade, conversations with shopkeepers, picnics, orchards, foraging for blackberries. It's not a nostalgia thing, or a question of privilege. Like everyone else, I have eaten a mountain of salt and vinegar crisps and can remember the jingles for breakast cereal, better than most of my lessons. When Mark and I compare our childhoods of bourgeios house and council estate, we share Twiglets and Custard Creams and Bird's Eye Fish Fngers, every variety of industrialied food, drenched in pesticides (from oil) and fertilizers (from natural gas). I wish I had like my friend Polly been brought up on hippy, socailist food. But I wasn't.

When I grow up however I find myself loyal to markets and delicatessens. I spend fifteen years working as a lifestyle journalist, documenting the skills of the shopkeepers, cooks, artisans, hatmakers and chair makers of London. I could tell you stories about the grocers from Samarkand, Bangladesh, Cyprus, Portugal, shops that specialise in wine or cheese or herbs from my city years, I could sing the praises of the Arizona co-op and the markets of Guatemala and Mexico from my travelling years. What I couldn't tell you is the name or remember the faces of anyone at the checkout in the numerous supermarkets I also went to. I can't remember any good times I had in these places. All I recall is how chilly and brightly lit and alien they were, the way the food was covered in plastic, how everything looked dead.

In another life, in Suffolk, in Transition. I find myself in market towns, battling against the encroachment of supermarkets, bullying corporations that are co-ercing local planners to change roads and housing estates to serve their interest, where small businesses are dropping like flies. I find myself reading Felicity Lawrence's account of the immigrant workers among the greenhouses of Spain and the packing houses in Thetford and can't buy that stuff anymore. I go to parties where prepackaged, factory food is laid out, and see how humble home-made dishes are left uneaten (except by myself). I start researching a book with my fellow Transitioner Josiah called Roots, Shoots and Seeds, about the arable fields that surround us and yet no-one sees, even though, like all civilisations, we depend on them in every aspect of our lives: sugar beet, rape, potatoes, flax and barley. Asking questions about pesticides, about soil, the effects of peak oil and climate change on agriculture. Looking at the future and making small moves.

What is life without a supermarket? It means a weekly trip to Juan's organic grocers, Jack's farm shop and Malcolm's smallholding where we have had a veg box for nine years. It means roadside stalls, produce swaps, freegan gifts, a montlhy shared Suma order and occasional visits to Norwich market, cycling down to our local ex-post office which sells organic milk and produce from Norman's market garden down the end of my lane. It would be harder to do some of this without a car, especially now so many rural buses have been cut. When we didn't have a car for months, I hitched and cycled. An inconvenient truth for sure.

As Shane Hughes wrote last week, once you engage in something with your heart and soul, other opportunities and riches come your way. Supermarkets cater for our engineered individualistic, bargain-basement emotions, but they don't bring happiness or fellowship, the kinds of relationships I have with Malcolm or Juan or Vanessa, or the joy I feel at noticing the fresh eggs and daffodils on Sarah's stall, as I go by.

The range of food we eat is much smaller for sure. Seasonal veg, pulses and grains mostly. I don't buy bananas, shrimps, tuna, greenhouse tomatoes, ice cream, or anything with palm oil, a diet that most people from all income streams consider ordinary. Most of my money is happily spent on food and distributed in the neighbourhood. If I buy a jar of honey it comes from the beehives in the local churchyard. It's twice as expensive as supermarket honey from overseas, and so I eat a lot less of it as a result. I eat a lot less of everything as a result. But I then don't miss or long for anything either.
Supermarkets are our materialistic churches of desire, catering to our addictions for sugar, fat and salt, to our weakness for novelty. To get out of them you need to drop the desire. It's not a decision you make rationally. No one persuades you to "change your behaviour". One day you see the pattern and are shocked to find blood on your hands.

You walk out the door because you no longer want to keep destroying the ocean bed and the forest, the eco-systems of the earth, exploiting your fellow human beings, throwing them off their land, condemning your fellow creatures, chickens, pigs and dairy cows to a life of hell. This is not a Me-Only decision. It's one we are having together. No hard feelings. No blame. We have all been asleep and now some of us are waking up and finding out what to do. Growing oats and beans, storing apples. Moving as David Korten would call it, from Empire to Earth Community.

Transition provides the platform on which these conversations can take place. We have this conversation at the Transition Norwich Low Carbon Cookbook meetings, at Carbon Conversations, at Sustainable Bungay's Happy Mondays at the Community Kitchen, at our Abundance produce swaps. If we don't have the conversation we don't learn anything, explore new ways of sharing and nourishing ourselves. We will just keep wandering the supermarket aisles, alone, disconnected, confused by false choices, lost in a bad dream, far from each other, far from home.

Time to link up.

With a sack of Suma millet; Felicity Lawrence' Eat Your Heart Out; with Malcolm at Swallow Organics, Darsham; with Naomi outside Focus Organic, Halesworth; with Mark at Middleton Farm Shop; wholefood co-op circle; Occupy the Oil Aisle protest poster; Occupy the Food Supply!

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