“Checkout Wars” – A survivor’s tale

Yesterday was what has become a typical Sunday for us – early trip to the farmers’ market to buy fresh produce, stop in on the way home at a supermarket to top up with key ingredients not available from the market. After getting most of my groceries at the market, I still needed chiles, cilantro, basil and greek yoghurt.  Whenever I brave a supermarket these days I make sure I go in with a plan and come out only with the items on my shopping list and nothing else.  I have come to understand that “impulse buys” are not a quirk of character on my part, they are very carefully orchestrated by the store’s strategy to prompt me to buy items I neither want nor need.  I now know that if I didn’t want it when I arrived, I am not going to miss it after I leave, no matter how much I may feel I want it in the moment.

The supermarket we use is a major chain in South Africa, with some similarities to Whole Foods in the USA.  One of these being that they sell what Michael Pollan calls “Storied food.”   Storied food is delightful – you can pick it up and read a little adventure yarn about where the food was grown, by who and how it came to be in your hands.  For example, the logo on the milk was a heart with a cow inside.  I was charmed to read that the milk had been produced by “happy cows.”  Not a word on whether those cows were grass or grain fed, and given the omission it is safe to assume that it is the latter.  However, at least the cows were happy about it!  Presumably the farmer took a survey and got a high satisfaction rating from the herd.

But the story telling is not confined to the labels on the products. The store had a massive advertisement at the entrance and again at the exit about their “Organic range” claiming that you could buy organic in everything “from t-shirts to tea bags.”  Given the size of the billboards, I wondered if I would suddenly find a vast array of new organic products on the shelves.  Looking into the history of this store’s relationship with organics, I found this fascinating press release from 2004 that explained their insight that organic was going mainstream and how they had updated their marketing to address this rapidly growing customer base.  How exciting!  Not so fast though, for a store that has understood the appeal of organics for such a long time, I was disappointed at how few items I could locate with the organic label in the fresh produce section.  I found some broccoli and that was pretty much it.  Perhaps the massive signs at the entrance and exit are meant to draw an organic “halo” around everything in the store, even if only a handful of products are actually certified organic?  Surely the marketing team would not be that cynical or have such a low opinion of consumer intelligence?

What is interesting is that there are at least 4 active, well supported farmers’ markets within a few kilometers of this particular store.  The one near my home a little further away does not advertise organics nearly as prominently.  Perhaps because they don’t face the same level of competition from the local food movement?  Least you think I am over-stating my case, the competition is real.  The markets were absolutely packed but there were only a handful of people in the supermarket.  Of course trade will pick up when the markets close, but for a few hours a week at least, this store is losing significant patronage to the nearby markets.

I was standing in the checkout line, looking at the massive “organics” advert overhead and reviewing my purchases to ensure that I everything on my shopping list and nothing else, when another reality thrust itself upon my consciousness.  The store has set up their checkout line so that everyone stands in the same queue and is routed to the next available cashier when they reach the front.  A very equitable and efficient system of queuing, which I greatly appreciate.  What I do not appreciate is the blatant attempt to manipulate my buying behavior in the form of the mouth-watering array of sweets and chocolates that flank the line of shoppers on either side.  What is more, once you enter the queue there is no escape.  There are people in front of you and behind you and your only option is to stand there and look at the goodies screaming “buy me!” for as long as it takes to get to the front of the queue.  Or you can shut your eyes and go to your happy place if you prefer. Those eye-catching candies used to be a source of significant temptation to me.  I would almost invariably succumb, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering husband, who seems immune to advertising of any kind for reasons I do not quite understand. These days I am able to run the gauntlet of the checkout line and emerge unscathed, which is a great relief to me. I now entertain myself by watching the other shoppers to see how many browse the items on display and end up adding a sweet or chocolate to their basket.  I would say it is at least one in 3, although if a young child is involved that likelihood increases dramatically.

It is because of tactics such as this, that I take massive offense at anyone who wants to reduce the diet of children to parental responsibility.  I have witnessed children simply lose it in that situation and have an all-out screaming tantrum.  Glass shatters and eardrums burst and other patrons look on in irritation and disapproval.  I have seen parents just grab a bag of sweets, rip it open and hand it to their hysterical offspring right there in the checkout line! Presumably they plan to pay for it later – in more ways than one!  When this occurs all the onlookers are simultaneously thinking two things: “You are a bad parent for giving in to your child like that – you aren’t teaching them anything!” and “Thank God you just did that and made the yelling stop!” I suspect that the parent is doing their level best and is a pretty good parent in most situations, but they are only human and just want the yelling and the social disapproval to stop.  The kid is freaking out, their head is about to explode, the enemy has them surrounded and all escape routes have been blocked off. Can you blame them?

At least when the harassed parent gets to the checkout they will be asked if they have a “My School” card and if they do a percentage of their purchases will go to support a school of their choice.  Next time you give in and buy that chocolate you had intended to resist, just remember that you are “doing it for the children!”

Would a store that really cares about their customers, the environment, the community and the education of children, deliberately put parents in this untenable situation every time they buy at the store with a child in tow?  If it is all about “consumer choice” and “making healthy choices that are part of a balanced diet” then why is it not good enough to give the sweeties their own aisle just like all the other products? Why do they need to flank the checkout line? Why not place the vegetables there instead?  If someone buys a bunch of carrots on impulse, no harm done, right? I do know that whenever I bought sweets, I would end up not only buying more and more sweets, but more food overall.  Is it possible that the store knows this as well?  As a grown adult I have to make a conscious effort to counteract the store’s strategy and come out with my health and budget in tact. Just watch this marshmallow experiment and you will get an idea of how tough this is on a kid, and the parent responsible for them.

If this video doesn’t tug at your heart-strings you are just dead inside!  Seriously, who would do this to a little kid?  Your local supermarket, that’s who!  Of course the point of the experiment is that ability to resist the marshmallow correlates to greater academic achievement later in life, so perhaps the supermarket exposes kids to an overwhelming selection of sweets in the checkout line to build character and contribute to their education 😛

If you have been paying attention you would know that I was in the supermarket in the first place because I couldn’t get everything I needed at the farmers’ market.  Doesn’t this prove that we still need supermarkets and shouldn’t we be grateful for the array of choices they offer us?  Sort of. I, for one, still need them, but my relationship with them is changing rapidly.  I am hardly ahead of the curve when it comes to issues of health and nutrition.  If I were, I wouldn’t be an obese, diabetic 38 year old!  I used to find people who only ate organic, or shopped at farmers’ markets annoying and thought of them as “alarmist” or “faddish.”  I am now one of those people.  The 2004 press release of my favorite supermarket was prophetic.  In 2013 I finally caught on to a trend they identified almost 10 years ago!  Although I still need the supermarket, I am needing them less and less, because they sell very little of what makes up my daily diet.  At the same time more and more farmers’ markets and co-ops are popping up, they are highly responsive to customer feedback, and every time I visit they seem to supply more of the ingredients I stock up on to ensure that I can continue to offer the menu of my new “home restaurant.”  For the time being I am glad that the supermarket is there although my friendship with them is somewhat strained.  For years I was a willing victim cheerfully guzzling down sodas and salt and vinegar crisps.  Now I only get what I came for, I see through all the marketing and “story telling” and I know not to look directly at the sweets in the checkout line for too long, least they blind me!

I have plans to plant a herb and vegetable garden in the Spring (we are now heading into Autumn) and increase my food independence even more. How long before I am able to end my troubled relationship with the supermarket altogether?  How many more people like me are out there?  Is our food economy changing or is this just a passing trend that will fade  when we return to shopping in the manner to which we have become accustomed?  Time will tell.  However, if the size of the food movement has any correlation to the size of the “Organics” signs in my supermarket then this thing is HUGE, people!

Diet and Children – Is it all up to the parents?

I recently heard someone who opposes the regulation of sugary food argue for “personal responsibility” and when asked “what about children?” the response was “well, that’s parental responsibility.”    Articles such as this one argue much along the same lines: Junk Food Studies Ignore Parent Responsibility. Really?!

When I hear stuff like this I am grateful that I don’t have kids, because I know that getting them to eat right would be a challenge that I would not be equal to!  However, it has lead me to reflect on my own childhood, the diet I was raised on and the diet I ended up with.

I can’t say enough about my late mother and her understanding of nutrition and the immense skill and patience with which she tried to raise my brother and myself to eat a healthy diet.  I often smile when I think about how much of the “eat real food” advice I am embracing now is exactly the principle that governed cooking and meals in our home.  So much so that I am even digging up her old recipes, and going through boxes in the garage to find old appliances that I used when I learned to cook as a child and later inherited for my own kitchen.  (I have her electric mixer that is older than I am and still works like a dream.) Never was there a mother more committed to giving her kids “the best start in life.”  Although I wasn’t exactly paying conscious attention at the time, I am told that she ate the best possible diet while she was pregnant with me.  She was lean and healthy at the start of her pregnancy and remained that way until shortly before her death.  I was, it goes without saying, breast-fed.

Once I started on solid food my mother tried, with the force of a thousand angels, to keep 2 things out of my diet: sugar and meat.  We’ll get to the meat bit in a moment, but she was up against it from the start when it came to sugar.  I am told that a nurse fed me sweetened condensed milk while I was in the neonatal unit, unbeknown to my starry-eyed 22 year old mom.  When she found out about this she was near hysterical with outrage, and she got to take home her first baby with streaming diarrhea, most likely as a result of the ministrations of this nurse.  I am not sure who told her, but my mother seemed well aware that sugar at high doses is toxic, especially to newborn infants!  However, she got a hard early lesson in just how much “parental control” she would get to exert over the diet of her first born daughter.

Once she had me safely at home, I am told that there was no more sugar for the first few years of my life.  Until a certain someone named granny arrived on the scene!  You know how grandparents are.  The dote on their grandkids and want nothing more than to make them happy.  So granny dearest snuck me my first chocolate and it was love at first bite.  Again, I was later to learn that this was the cause of considerable tension between my mom and my gran.  My gran, however, did not cease and desist from supplying the choccies, she would just slip them to me with the admonition “Don’t tell your mom.”  I was only about 3 years old, but I was eager to play along because I understood that secrecy was key to my continued chocolate supply, and to this day I can’t help but feel that we would have got away with it, had she not made the fatal error of giving me Smarties (candy coated chocolates like M&Ms).  As I clutched the precious treasures in my 3 year old fists, the food coloring came off in my hands, and was later transferred all over my cherubic visage, so when my mom arrived to take me home, gran and I were literally caught red handed!  I will confess that when asked by my mom who had given me the Smarties, I ratted out granny without a moment’s hesitation!

So my theory is that despite my mom’s best efforts, between the nurse and my grandmother the damage was done, and I have been engaging in drug seeking . . . uhm . . I mean sugar seeking behaviors ever since.  My mother began allowing occasional treats at home in the hope that she could prevent my rebellion by not depriving me completely, but alas, these treats were merely in addition to the ones I was obtaining elsewhere, not my total intake. There were the kids at school who I would do lunch trades with, the other kid’s parents who would ply me with candy when I played at their house, and of course, the school tuck shop where I could just blow my pocket money on the cheapest sweets available.  What’s more, when it came to anything containing sugar I was highly susceptible to advertising.  If a new chocolate came onto the market, I simply had to try it.  And then try it again a few more times to confirm that I really liked it as much as I thought I did 🙂  I remember thinking that eternal bliss and happiness would be mine, if my mother would only succumb and buy me Froot Loops instead of that 7 grain porridge she would lovingly prepare at home and cajole me into eating.

So you get the picture: Mom doing everything right, offering whole foods and occasional treats, encouraging healthy eating every which way she could think of.  Me, the addict, sourcing my own supply through skilled manipulation of well-meaning relatives, an illicit sweet trade with friends, and, when I entered the free market as the proud owner of a monthly allowance, through my own buying behavior. I therefore put it to the journalist who argues that “junk food studies ignore parent responsibility” that he has failed to consider a child’s resourcefulness!  Radford writes:

But parents, not fast food chains, have near-total control over what their kids eat. If parents can’t say no to little Billy when he says he wants a Happy Meal, that’s not McDonald’s fault; that’s poor parenting.

He can argue this only because he asserts that the parent is the only person who feeds a child and that children are only able to obtain food from parents.  From this I can only conclude that he is either not a parent, or his kids are remarkably maleable and compliant! I, on the other hand, employed my resourcefulness, not only as an older child, but from the moment I could bat my eyes and look cute.  Family legend has it that as a toddler I would wander around restaurants taking french fries off the plates of other patrons, much to my parents’ horror.  When they tried to intervene and teach me some manners, the other patrons kept reinforcing my bad behavior by offering me more, because I was a cute kid.  You can imagine how easy it was to get me to eat my vegetables with so many more appealing options available to me!

Earlier I mentioned that in addition to a low sugar diet, I was also raised a vegetarian.  Now given my track record on sugar consumption, what do you think my level of compliance was for avoiding meat? Was I scoring cheese burgers on the side? Was I taking a bite out of grandpa’s steak or spending my lunch money on hot dogs?  Given the lengths to which I would go to obtain a food item I craved, would it surprise you to learn that my compliance on the meat issue was 100% and has been to this day?  This notwithstanding a huge amount of social pressure to eat meat, ample opportunity to do so behind my mother’s back and just as many willing accomplices eager to slip me a chicken wing as there were pushing candy my way.  I was having none of it.  No way, no how, not interested, not now, not ever, take your meat as far away from me as possible thank you very much!  I could detect meat at 100 paces and would go to any lengths to avoid it, with or without parental supervision.

The purpose of this post is not to argue the merits or demerits of a vegetarian diet, but this story from my upbringing is fascinating to me and makes me think “parental responsibility” isn’t a simple answer to the problem of childhood obesity.  Here we have the same parents, the same kid, and the same set of circumstances.  And yet on the meat issue their parental authority achieves 100% sovereignty and success, but on the sugar issue they score exactly 0%?  Of course we know that babies come out of the womb craving sweet stuff, so in an environment where sweet stuff is readily available, who seriously rates parents as having a decent chance of keeping their children’s intake at acceptable levels? People who have never tried, that’s who! Especially in a world where not everyone in the child’s social circle is on the same page about what kids should eat, and a massive food industry actively markets sugary food to kids at every turn!

You need to consider when people other than my parents gave me the bad stuff, my parents were in a position of not only having to discipline me, but they had to navigate their relationship with the other adult, and this adult was often a person they respected and wanted a good relationship with, and also needed me to respect because that person was also a carer who had charge over me for at least some of the time (grandparent, teacher, friend’s parent).  An unenviable situation, I am sure you can understand!

I know there are many parents out there who are doing an amazing job, and I look on in awe!  Neither do I presume to offer any parenting advice, as I am not qualified to do so.  All I am saying is that, after reflecting on my own upbringing, given their best possible efforts, there was nothing more that my parents could have done to prevent me from becoming a sugar addict.  And even if there are other parents who are having greater success, it is way harder for them than it should be.

While I am not denying that parents have a pivotal role to play, the food industry, government, schools and society should not get to get a free pass and simply cry “leave it to the parents!”  They should not call for parental responsibility and then use this as a license to be grossly irresponsible themselves! No responsible adult would get away with giving a toddler alcohol, and any reasonably sane person would grab bleach out of a kid’s hand before they could chug it.  But not everyone will respect the wishes of a parent not to have their child fed cookies and flavored milk!  And let’s not be naive, the food industry actively, deliberately and expertly strives to undermine parental responsibility at every turn.  So yes all you, “parental responsibility” advocates out there, if a parent is willingly buying their kid large quantities of junk food, clearly that is a problem.  But it is a massive error of logic to assume that if the parent is not doing so the child will eat their vegetables, stay off the junk and grow up healthy!  For that to happen we need a paradigm shift in society, reform in our schools, regulation of the food industry and appropriate government legislation.  Because as my former self, the sugar-loving 3 year old, with candy smeared all over her pretty little face,  can tell you:  “It ain’t going to happen any other way!”