something not quite right: food

While staying in London’s Earls Court recently we stopped in a few times at the local Marks and Spencer Food to pick up supplies. Apart from how cold it was inside, we appreciated the way the food was presented …  and it made we wonder about our supermarkets in Australia.









My hunch that we are being cheated was confirmed when I read this months Monocle issue on food. A myriad of exemplary food retailers from all corners of the globe are featured, including some types that don’t typically feature in a discussion on the future of healthy food such as a Japanese burger chain and middle eastern supermarkets. Australia didn’t rate a mention except for the following:

“It’s not all good news. On our frequent visits to Australia we have often wondered how a nation that has one of the best restaurant cultures in the world has some of the most boring supermarkets: Coles is like a 1970s throughback.” A column then slams the impact of the Coles / Woolworths duopoly.

For an amateur foody like me, it’s an embarrassment. Sure there are alternatives, in fact Monocle uses a stat. indicating that 30% of us (in Australia) never go into supermarkets. We get meat, fish and some fruit and veg from the Vic markets once a week and we pick up supplies at our local strip regularly, especially on the weekend. We are lucky to have a local bakery, fruit and veg, Indian supermarket and an IGA. But with essentially six adults to feed it’s hard to avoid the big supermarkets.

But apart from the pricing dimension, most of don’t realise we are being robbed of best practice food retailing, that includes transparency in the supply chain as well as the way it is presented to us. We don’t know what we don’t know.

Food is one of those big issues, around which there will need to be change on a global scale. Colin Tudge spoke about some of the issues recently at the Do Lectures. You can listen to his talk here. Sometimes, it seems we are happy just sticking our heads in the sand and pretending everything is OK.

In Melbourne, our news diet of late has featured the Occupy Melbourne protests, spawned by the Walls Street occupation. Similar gatherings are now in 900 cities around the world. Beyond the predictable media that loves to capture the antics of dreadlocked hooligans, those I’ve spoken to talk about intense and serious discussions about aspects of our society that are broken. They speak of a hunch that ‘things are not quite right’ and believe that the only way in which we can begin to develop systemic solutions is to talk, with different players around the [figurative] table. Isn’t that what a city square is supposed to be for Mr Doyle?

If, in our immediate lives and spheres of influence we are tracking along just-dandy-thank-you-very-much, then talk of ‘things being not quite right’ sounds a bit alien. But if all of us were to lift our eyes and ask questions about the long term impact of our choices and engage in genuine curiosity about what life is like for all sectors in our communities, then I suspect we would be less inclined to wish these agitators would go away. Improving the way food is produced and sold to us in Australia is just one issue for which there appears little political appetite.