When you go shopping – and I’m thinking about mostly about food shopping – do you think about sustainability? If you’re reading this you are a Green Parent so I’m sure you do, you think about animal welfare, or food miles, whether the food is organic or if the fish is from a sustainable source, but do you think much about your journey to the shops in the first place?
Do you drive to the out of town hypermarket hoping you’ve remembered your ‘bags for life’ and that there will be a ‘parent with child’ space available to park your car in? Do you use your children as justification for driving to the shops? Are you at the other end of the shopping spectrum where your allotment provides most of your food and your cleaning products are all made from staples from the kitchen cupboard? Or maybe, dare I say – probably – like me – somewhere in between?
I’ve been thinking a lot about the journey to the shops recently and how it has changed even in my own lifetime. The reason I’ve been thinking about it is because I’m beginning to believe the change from local to our of town food shopping has not for the better. As an activity food shopping is something that we all do. We are always going to have to eat and the majority of us are always going to be going to food shops, that’s a lot of trips to the shops, I can’t even begin to imagine how many people, all over the country are driving to the shops on a daily basis, let alone weekly, monthly or yearly. If we all considered how we did it, what a difference that would make to ourselves as well as the environment, and would make our shopping a more sustainable activity. We could get fitter whilst reduce our carbon footprint, and I think significantly so, given how often we go to buy food.
If you are 40 plus (like me), you may just remember the world without very large supermarkets. I remember small supermarkets, some of which were owned by today’s big names, but before they went ‘hyper’, but those small supermarkets tended to have their own butchers and fish counter. I remember the independent greengrocers, butchers and fishmongers and I remember walking to them with my mum and carrying the shopping home. Then two things happened that looking at where we’ve arrived, now seem significant: out of town supermarkets appeared, and to shop effectively at these places you really needed to go by car.
Your high street
So let me ask you a question. Do you have a local high street that you can walk to and where you can buy food? If you do – and you do, then that’s great, but if you have local shops and don’t use them then think about what you are missing out on. Yes you will miss a trip in the car but instead of this you could be burning your own energy instead of petrol, and using your muscles, you will be getting a free workout. So here is what you do: you take a walk to your local shops expending energy as you go, you do your shopping and carry it home, expending even more energy as you will now be carrying weights. Believe me, the thought of carrying it all home focuses the mind on buying only what you need. In that one act of walking to the shops you will have likely taken your recommended thirty minutes of daily exercise, or more, you have not put extra offers in your basket that looked good value in the shop but you didn’t really need anyway, because you won’t want to carry them home, you are therefore likely to have less food and packaging waste, and on top of that you will have supported your local shops. That all sounds like huge benefits just from taking a walk.
But! I hear you say, “there is more choice at the hypermarkets”. Well in response I would argue that as supermarkets got larger, more products were needed to fill the extra space and shelves, yet it is not the fresh produce that takes up most of the floor space but whole aisles of crisps, sweets, biscuits, ready meals, sugar coated cereals and alcohol. Yes there may be less choice in your local shops but is all that choice really necessary? it certainly isn’t all healthy. Imagine your local hypermarket in your minds eye and then cut out all the parts that aren’t fresh food, or essential dried foods, and see by how much you can shrink that shop. Perhaps, if I’m generous I would admit that there are more products available in the fruit and vegetable section but this is because more produce is sold out of season, either home grown using lots of heat and water or flown in from other countries. Seasonality, and the pleasure gained from marking seasons with food is becoming a thing of the past, maybe you don’t even remember when strawberries were only available in summer, it was exciting to see them in punnets in the greengrocers… your children are likely to never really understand, just by observation of food and environment, how food, seasons and weather are interlinked.
The benefits of walking to the shops though are extendable to your children. Walking to the shops with you increases their activity time. Did you know that the Department of Health recommends that children under 5 years old, who can walk, should be active for three hours a day, that’s quite a time to fill with activities. When you regularly walk outside with your child you can talk about stuff on the way, you notice the changes in the weather, the trees with, or without leaves, shadows from the sun, the feeling of the wind, splashing in puddles. You can teach them road safety at the same time as teaching them that it is normal to leave the car at home. You will be a shorter time in the shop which is less boring for them and there will be less things strategically placed to grab their attention and start the “mummy/daddy can I have” conversation, therefore there will be less likelihood of a tantrum whilst you are out shopping. They could even have their own little bag and help you carry something home. You may even benefit from a tired child who would quite like a nap now.
Family purse strings
Some people feel their local shops may be a bit more expensive, and that is something you would have to research locally, but bear in mind the savings you are going to make. You won’t be paying for petrol and with the price of fuel that it not a small saving, you won’t be tempted by items that you didn’t even know you wanted, and you won’t be able to pick up a cardigan that just caught your eye when you are buying vegetables in your local greengrocers. You won’t be tempted to buy things you wouldn’t normally buy just because there is an offer on. You can search on the internet for ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘BOGOF’ offers at big supermarkets if you want to see what you may be missing. Whilst writing this I carried out a BOGOF search for one of the leading large supermarkets and 37 items were on offer at that time, of which 8 were not food products and of the 29 left only 1 was a fresh vegetable product, 1 tinned vegetable product, 1 was canned fish, and the rest of the majority were high fat/sugar/ salt (i.e junk) foods. I didn’t feel that I was missing out, infact, given that the majority of large supermarkets have signed up for the governments Public Health Responsibility Deal, I was quite disappointed by the lack of fresh foods on offer and the abundance of high fat/sugar products. You won’t be tempted by the handy in-house coffee shop, although there may be one in your high street, it will be an actual conscious decision if you decide to go there. Of course, you can cancel your gym membership too as you will be getting exercise as nature intended and the time walking and talking to your child is free too.
No, I’m not convinced that we make any big financial savings shopping in out of town hypermarkets, I am convinced we make more important savings of other kinds like promoting our health, creating community and reducing car use by not driving out of town.
In my childhood few people were obese, and whilst the causes of overweight and obesity are many and complex, it is interesting to look at lifestyle changes over time and asking are they really were for the better, and who is really benefitting, or can we learn from the generation before? We often hear ‘eat only what your grandmother, (or should that now be great grandmother?) would recognise’, well I add to that ‘shop in a way your (great) grandmother would recognise’, it will be better for all of us.