Supermarkets and the fabric of society

At the Welsh Government’s recent Food for the Future conference in Llandudno, the corporate sector was well represented, and rightly so, given the proportion of our food that reaches our plates via the superhighway that is the global food industry. So also was the health sector, there to express concerns about rocketing rates of obesity, diabetes and heart attacks. There was much talk therefore of the relationship between the food industry and the public, and I was struck by a remark made by Tim Rycroft of the Food and Drink Federation, the industry body which represents the UK food and drink sector, with members all the way from Tregroes Waffles to Tate and Lyle.

carrots poster

‘Our values make us different’ – but how different?

Food, he said, is part of the cultural fabric of our society, and this is particularly true in Wales, where people have a particularly soft spot for food produced in the part of the world they call home. That is certainly true. It’s what connects us as families and communities: just think of Sunday lunch, picnics at the beach, allotments, cafes and the workplace canteen. And the opposite of that: TV dinners, children who don’t know where milk comes from, adults who can’t boil an egg, junk food and worst of all, no food at all. Food connects us and expresses who we are as a society, and it links us to the natural world too.

So what is the supermarkets’ response to that? Both Tim Rycroft and Nick Canning of the supermarket chain Iceland had much to say about the quality and freshness of their food, the information that they give their customers about what’s in it, and the steps that the industry is taking to move away from special offers that steer us towards buying more than we need, or making unhealthy choices. They are taking confectionery away from the tills, reducing salt content, producing low-fat ready meals and labelling their products to tell us what’s in them. Many of them are also (though they didn’t say this, because the focusof the conference was on the health of the Welsh population above all) sourcing some of their produce ethically through various certification schemes such as Fairtrade, Freedom Foods and organic.

All this is good, and there is no doubt that corporate food is aware of its social responsibilities and taking some steps in the right direction. Still, I felt there was something missing, and I think the problem lay in the rhetoric of ‘the consumer’, and the uneasy relationship between the profit motive and the aim of feeding a healthy population. When the consumer – and in the mass, a local community – is the source of a supermarket’s profits, how much more lucrative to sell them what they want, rather than what’s good for them. In the strange world of the supermarket, where the lights are bright and the choice is vast, it’s easy to do that. Those flapjacks might be clearly labelled as being 30% sugar and 20% fat, but who cares, when they look so alluring?

I think if the food industry is really to serve the society of which it is part, it needs to engage with its ‘cultural fabric’ in a more genuine way, building it up rather than mining it. We all need to stand up as citizens, not producers and consumers, and see how supermarkets can be more a part of their local communities, rather than outposts of their head offices. There are plenty of examples of good practice already: supermarkets have been sponsoring school gardens, donating surplus food to charity, linking schools with farms, promoting local produce, funding community groups to grow food in their carparks, and hosting farmers markets.

What if instead of doing these things in a piecemeal way, with an eye to PR, supermarkets really committed to the job of rebuilding local food networks, and thereby strengthening local communities, and we held them to it? Let’s stop talking about us and them, and join together to transform our food system into one that really embodies our values of care, fairness and balance with nature, not just for ourselves now, but for future generations.

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