“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!

I took my money – and I left!

Local, organic produce

Fresh, organic produce from the Blaauklippen and Route 44 Markets in Stellenbosch

You know how it goes when two kids play together.  It is all fun and laughter until one child accidentally (or intentionally) hurts the other child.  Then the injured child bursts into tears, grabs their toys and runs home. That is pretty much how I feel about my play-date with the food industry.  For decades I enjoyed my milkshake and french fries until I ended up as an obese type 2 diabetic.  There were definitely some tears and, instead of toys, I took my money . . . and I left!  Or, in the epic words of South Park’s Eric Cartman: “Screw you guys, ima going home!

I left because I finally understood with shocking clarity that anyone who sells a substance meant to be ingested by humans, that alters mood and perception, affects behavior and creates dependence is a drug dealer.  Any time you consciously try to get people to eat, drink, inject or sniff more of whatever you are selling, that is exactly what you are doing. More and more we are beginning to understand and accept that segments of the food industry should be regulated like the alcohol and tobacco industry, precisely because we are finally recognizing that they deal in substances that are toxic at high doses, create addiction and are prone to abuse in a percentage of individuals. Of course not all drugs are, or should be, illegal, but we should at least be given all the information to recognize them for what they are and, if we decide to use them at all, do so appropriately and responsibly and at our own risk. Which means they cannot be marketed to children and should not even be sold to children.

Given this understanding, supermarkets are starting to annoy me more and more. Not just because of the constant price increases, crowded aisles and long queues.  They annoy me because they sell drugs mixed in with food items! This may sound melodramatic and over the top, but after reading books like Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The Compass of Pleasure by David Linden, and after personally experiencing the addictive power of refined and processed foods, there is no doubt in my mind that this is exactly what they are doing!  But the worst part is they are marketed in a context that makes them seem “safe,” “innocent,” and even “healthy”.  To score some heroin you would have to seek out a dealer, to buy alcohol you would have to produce ID, cigarettes carry prominent warnings and even when you go through a drive through you are well aware that the food you are buying is not particularly healthy for you.  But when you make your way through the cereal aisle in a supermarket, trying to discern the difference between a genuinely healthy whole grain cereal and a sugar bomb is not as straightforward as you might think.

The fault for all of this, we are told, lies with consumers, not the manufacturer or the merchant. We hear things like: “Learn to read food labels” – the implication being that if you don’t make good food choices you are either negligent or illiterate .  Except that I would cheerfully read the complete works of Shakespeare before breakfast before I will try to decipher some food labels!  The lists of ingredients are long, often unpronounceable and many of them I have never heard of, let alone have any idea what they are and how they affect my body.  “Make healthy choices”  we are advised.  Again, I made my best effort and the closest I could come was the fresh produce section.  But even there I don’t know where the food comes from, how it was grown, how far it travelled and how fresh it is. Furthermore, in my supermarket the fresh produce section is right next to the bakery, which, let’s face it, might as well be a crack house!

These days, trying to score a bit of food in a supermarket feels like picking up bread and milk at 11 at night in a bad neighborhood.  The best approach is “don’t make eye contact, walk swiftly and purposefully, get in and get out!”  Although I do still pick up the odd item at the supermarket, that is pretty much how I approach it.  When I go I know what I am there for, I get it quick, pay and leave.  No casual browsing in the biscuit section, no picking up boxes in the cereal aisle searching for the “healthy kind” and definitely no eye contact with the sweeties in the checkout line designed to solicit “impulse buys.”

For the rest I order food online from The Ethical Co-op, get a few items from health shops, or visit the farmers markets and artisanal food producers in my area.  I then prepare everything from scratch at home.  I make my own coconut milk instead of buying the canned variety.  I bake my own slow-rising whole grain bread and, more latterly, I have turned my kitchen into an ice cream factory.  Because let’s face it, you’ve got to have ice cream!

I am discovering the most amazing insights from the best thinkers we have today on this subject.  Yesterday I was spellbound by this panel discussion between Michael Pollan, Robert Lustig and Andrew Weil. Well done to whoever got those 3 on the same couch, you couldn’t ask for better!  It is interesting to me that the discussion took place in 2011 and I just watched it in 2013.  Does this mean that it took roughly this long for these issues to reach public consciousness?  If so that would still be fast, but thanks to the internet I think it is actually almost happening in real time.  The fact is I wasn’t interested in this topic in 2011 so I wouldn’t have watched it then.  Also, the presenter mentions that this forum had been taking place for 7 years and members of the public were present along with health care professionals.  I am really playing catch up here.  It seems that there has been a ground-swell of public awareness and dissatisfaction for some time with the current state of our food supply, both in the USA and the countries to which they have exported their diet – my country, South Africa, being one of them.

The ones who will most likely be the last to catch on will be the mainstream food industry.  They are famous for saying that they are “just giving the public what they want.”  Well, in response to that I would like to say that I am Average Jane Public.  I am as lazy, complacent and mainstream as they come when it has to do with issues of diet.  I would choose taste and convenience over health every time.  Until my health got so bad that this was no longer an option.  The food industry should be alarmed that in the last few months someone like me has not only rediscovered cooking, I am making everything from scratch using ingredients I only recently heard of and they don’t supply.  This is a dramatic revolution in the life of one person that is being replicated across the globe, as the diseases that result from our diet catch up with more and more people.  So now the supermarket, who used to just sell me what they convinced me I wanted, has a whole lot of stuff I don’t want, and very little that I do.  For example they don’t carry amaranth, chia seeds or coconut oil and I need all three just for my breakfast!

In the Q&A section of the panel discussion, someone from the audience made an interesting point about “a tipping point of consumer rejection.”  What exactly the tipping point is, seems to differ from product to product.  I wonder if we are approaching that tipping point for high sugar, refined carbohydrate products, because if so that is a lot of products!  I really hope, however, that we engage our brains and don’t just go “low carb,” thereby just creating the next marketing angle for Big Food.  Instead we need to go for whole food, as it grew out of the ground, because that will mean real change.

Michael Pollan said something beautiful right at the end that I would like to close this post with: “There are people like you and your neighbors who are building an alternative food system now.  And that’s politics too.  That’s voting with your fork.  Not giving your money to multi-national food companies but building an alternative economy.  People want an alternative even if they can’t even express exactly why” – Michael Pollan

That’s the alternative I am looking for, and it is right on my doorstep.  I’ll be playing there until further notice and will only consider visiting the food industry again when I am sure they are not going to hurt me anymore.  I don’t expect that to happen any time soon.