During the endless sequence of lockdowns over the past two years one of our biggest challenges was feeding ourselves. Being dropped by supermarkets was far from unusual in the early days. After years of weekly deliveries from Waitrose we discovered that just when we needed them most we were sidelined by the sharp elbowed who hogged all the delivery slots at the very time we were being advised to avoid busy public places like supermarkets. It took months to persuade them that we fitted all the criteria that would classify us as vulnerable. Eventually deliveries were restored but the relationship had been irrevocably damaged. During that time our sons helped us out, the students on the same landing offered to do shopping for us on day one of the lockdown, and we managed to get bulk supplies of some of the most important staples. A local baker who had been one of our middle son’s apprentices let me have a 25K bag of flour, I got a kilo of dried yeast on the internet and doubled down on the sourdough. We grow our own vegetables so there was a supply line already in place. During that time all trust in the system broke down and we began to explore some of the alternatives. We established contact with a local flour mill and ever since we’ve been able to source far better quality organic flour than we were ever able to get from the supermarkets. We explored local butchers shops and found a newsagent who was always happy to sell milk. The farmers market closed for a long while but when it started up again we discovered we could buy almost anything we needed there. It turned out that we didn’t have to run the gauntlet of queues and can’t be arsed assistants at the instore pharmacy in the supermarket because a local small pharmacy was marvellous for advice (and even flu jabs) when the local GP’s became virtually unavailable. We discovered some of the farm shops in the area and gradually figured out which suppliers were the real deal and whose expensive niche products were overpriced novelties. One key moment was when a local farm started to sell fresh low temperature pasteurised milk from a slot machine at the market. We bought five glass bottles and since we began we’ve had better milk and stopped sending about five plastic bottles to landfill every week. Of course there’s the additional environmental benefit because most of these shops are within walking distance. In fact I’d say without any hesitation that the crisis was, for us, just the nudge we needed to take local food from an aspiration to a behaviour. When, this Christmas, the deliveries from Waitrose were, once again, all taken by 2.00 am on the day that online orders opened, without a moment’s thought took our business to the local outlets who had looked after us for 2 years, and we enjoyed better quality than we’ve had for years even though our total spend was no greater. Although it still makes sense to have some things delivered by the supermarket, they have too often failed to deliver on ubiquitous commodity products like milk; but it no longer matters to us because we can get almost anything we need locally from traders who recognise us. In the process we’ve discovered a whole network of local artisan producers whose products are of better quality by an order of magnitude than the mass produced supermarket imitations.
Does it cost more? Well yes, although you’d have to qualify that by saying that when we buy really good quality food we eat rather less of it. Our cheese consumption has gone down dramatically because I no longer hack off lumps of commercial block Cheddar as snacks. Our meat consumption has decreased significantly now because we buy smaller quantities – leaving our expenditure roughly the same.
The key to the significance of all this is that the changes in our shopping and eating habits didn’t come from abstract principles; they were almost forced on us by the inadequacies of the existing food supply system. So much of what we read and hear in the media comes across as constant nagging from some supposed moral high ground, but what if we approached it from the more practical point of view, which is to say that local food chains work better; they’re far more secure and they provide better food PLUS they entail all the environmental and health benefits we aspire to.
It’s pretty well understood now that much of the resistance to the kind of environmental measures we know we have to accept is down to fear – fear of change and fear of losing the things we’ve come to rely on. Maybe there’s a role here for what I call ‘frinstances’. Being much less vocal on the oughts of our environmental campaigns but turning up the volume of the ‘is’ of better and more reliable local food chains. I usually run a mile from business jargon; but one statement has stuck in my mind for years now. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. It couldn’t be more true. Here we are trying to change a whole entrenched culture and all we seem to do is throw strategy after strategy at it with a generous side order of statistics and threats. Maybe it’s time to give up nagging and start singing?