When did shopping get so complicated? Part 1-food

You know when you don’t really know about stuff, so you don’t really think about it, and then you start finding out about stuff, and it then changes the way you think about everything?

Well that.

I have been aware of food shopping issues like food miles, air-freighting, organic, local for a while now. And since taking part in the Waste Watchers campaign, we are now throwing packaging into the mix too.

This makes food shopping a bit of a nightmare.

Which issue takes priority?

Which is better/more important?

I am of the firm belief that organic fruit and veg is not only better for us, and tastier, but also that it is a far far more sustainable way of farming, and much gentler on the earth. So we get an organic fruit and veg box from Riverford every week.

Some of the delicious fruit from this week's fruit box

Some of the delicious fruit from this week’s fruit box

But is it better to buy from the local greengrocers or fruit and veg man at the market, and support local businesses? It would certainly be cheaper. But very often there is very little information about where the food has come from, and even at the Farmer’s Market, the fruit and veg is rarely organic.

So which is better?

And is it better to buy things like pasta from the local deli, and support local business, or organic pasta from the supermarket, because, well, it’s organic. Or just go for the ‘Basics/Value/Essential’ supermarket range and save a bit of money?
Regardless of which you choose, they all come in plastic ‘film’ packaging, which we can’t recycle at the moment in Wiltshire, so it’s a fail on the Waste Watchers front.

And flour. I really struggle with flour. The supermarkets all seem to do an organic range, so is it ‘better’ to buy this, or to buy locally grown and milled flour even if it’s been grown with a hefty dose of pesticides?

Is Fairtrade more important than organic?

Is it better to buy British produce if it has been produced in heated glasshouses, rather than produce from abroad that has been air-freighted here?

Is buying from a local, independent retailer always a more ‘ethical’ choice than buying from a giant multi-national?

You see my dilemma?

What do you all do? What are the priorities for you when you are shopping?

And does anyone have the golden bullet magic shopping solution that allows you to food shop with a clear conscience..?

39 thoughts on “When did shopping get so complicated? Part 1-food

  1. Well. We buy our fruit and veg from a stall at the end of the road. It’s DEFINITELY not organic and it’s probably flown across several continents. And my guilt is compounded by the fact that the cafe next door to it does an organic box service that’s all sourced within a five mile radius of our place. BUT: the stall is so, SO much cheaper that I just can’t justify the investment in a box. It’s a pound for a massive plastic bowl of vegetables. For the moment, at least, we’re stuck with it…

  2. Oh Jen – it’s so nice to hear I’m not the only one who takes 3 hours to get round a supermarket as I am tying to weigh up the most ethical purchases! And I have no silver bullet. There are reports saying local is better and less carbon. There are reports saying food grown abroad, in sunnier climes, and air freighted is less carbon than that grown in the UK. You can’t always get local or fair-trade or organic options. And pockets are only so deep. I think the most important thing is that you’re thinking about it, and making a choice, Whichever you go for is going to be a better choice that the head down shopper who grabs the first, cheapest item on the shelf as it’s the most convenient. In general, I abide by these principles:
    – Try and keep fresh fruit n veg seasonal
    – For exotic stuff go fairtrade
    – Try and keep meat local
    – Try and buy that with less packaging (although recent data showed how packaging on fruit and veg kept it fresher in the fridge!)
    – If you’re not sure which is best, chop and change! We switch between local and fairtrade wines for example.
    – Support local deli’s when you can, for a treat
    – NEVER feel guilty. Everything you are doing is making the world a better place, one step at a time.
    Others may disagree with me, But they are my rules and I’m stickin to em!

    • Some great guidelines Janine, thankyou!
      Once you start thinking about something, and learning more, it is very hard not to feel guilty about nearly every decision you make..

    • I agree. Try not to feel guilty and stress about it. At least you are thinking which most of the world aren’t. Where you can, grow your own and avoid convenience stuff, especially the world of over packaged ‘kids’ food that seems to be taking over the lunch boxes at schools these days.

      • It is quite scary how the packaged convenience foods seem to have taken over the kid’s market-as long as they are branded organic, it seems that it’s ok..!

  3. Ummm tricky! Personally I don’t go for organic every time. I make all my own bread and use a mixture of local flour and supermarket (British) flour. I’m sure that just by making bread I’m doing some good? Honest ingredients and no packaging! Cost is always high on my list of priorities and keeping the children happy, healthy and full.
    Interested to hear what others do.

    • Homemade bread is about a gazillion times better then supermarket ‘bread’ anyday, regardless of what type of flour, I reckon!

  4. As you say this is a difficult one. I do supermarket shop but try to buy as much “loose” fruit and veg as possible. I look at the where its from label and choose that, that is either British, or the least air miles. I also try to buy “in season” too rather than expecting strawberries etc all year round! I do buy organic dependent on comparative price. One thing I don’t do is over buy and never these days throw anything away!

    • I find it very hard with the seasonal thing-we only ever get strawberries for instance, when they are in season (in the UK!), but we happily eat bananas and apples all year round.
      I am getting quite the expert now at making sure we use every last scrap of what we buy, and I am thoroughly enjoying it 🙂

  5. This! Exactly! Since I’ve taken to reading ingredient lists everything is so hard. And is it better to buy at our local market or buy at our local green grocer from actual locals or buy organic or buy from the farm direct or eat vegetarian chicken soy drumsticks (probably not the last bit).I’m considering eating my food in pill form only from now on.

    • I have no answers either-the pill form may be the way forwards-as long as it’s locally produced, sold through a local independent retailer, and made with organic, fairtrade ingredients..!

  6. I work in a sustainable supermarket (focus on organic or fair trade or local goods). We have a lovely group of core customers, but only a select few do all their shopping with us. Even I don’t do all my shopping there! I get the majority of my store cupboard basics, my fruit and veg from the local greengrocers, and then I have to venture to a supermarket for my frozen goods. It is difficult to know what to buy and where (even more so when you are a gluten-free vegan!), but I try to use my local shops above all else to keep the local economy alive.

    • That’s really interesting. A sustainable supermarket sounds great-can you persuade them to branch out into veg boxes, and frozen goods, and then all your problems would be solved! I agree that supporting local shops is important in terms of the local economy, but our local greengrocer gives no information as to where the produce has come from, so I suspect a lot of it has been air-freighted in, and is not that seasonal. Still can’t get my head around how it can be cheaper to pay for tons of chemicals to spray the crops with AND then put them on an aeroplane halfway around the world, rather than grow them naturally, locally…

      • If only we had the space! Its quite a tiny shop! Until two months ago we didn’t know where our organic fruit and veg came from, as all we received was a handwritten invoice! Now we get a computer print out which states origin, so maybe ask the local greengrocer if they know where its from? I never write on our labels where its from.

        Janine, that is fascinating about the LME! Thank you, I’ll tell everyone I know!

    • Hi Elle & Jen 🙂 On Elle’s note about keeping the local economy alive I was reminded of a fact I thought you might want to know (though you probably do already!). Whenever £1 is spent it gets ‘recycled’ in the local economy (as in you buy something from a shop, that is then used to pay a shop worker who uses it in another shop and so on). It’s called the Local Multiplier Effect. If you spend £1 in a High St Chain / multinational, it will get recycled in your local economy 3 times. If you spend £1 at a local, independent shop it will get recycled 7 – 10 times in your local economy!! I kid you not. It’s the best way to support economic regeneration in your area (and is one of the main reasons for the Bristol Pound and other local currencies). So you could add to my list of rules, which I forgot, try to do some of your shopping with independents where you can (this doesn’t only apply to food of course – the more you shop with independent shops, the more you support your local area in becoming resilient and sustainable!) I could waffle on more, but I’m off for breakfast (toast with bread from our local baker, not organic, but baked 100m away and totally scrummy!)

  7. I’m another who vacillates between price, packaging, fairtrade, organic, animal welfare, local and which shop as a priority.
    I have got much stricter about seasonal shopping. The children haven’t seen a fresh tomato for about 6 months (other than at other people’s houses- sooo exciting!) and we have a lot of X and grated carrot/sprouted seed sandwiches over winter. This helps with packaging a bit.
    Apples I used to buy all year round, but I bought some British apples the other day and they were definitely getting woolly from where they’ve been stored so long. This is the hardest time of year for fruit- even my rhubarb isn’t up yet- so bananas (which have become an occasional treat rather than a weekly buy) are more frequent, as are (Italian) kiwis and other ‘exotic’ fruits.
    But, bananas. Do I buy them from the supermarket (boo!), where they are organic and FT (yay!) but in a plastic bag (boo!) or from my lovely farm shop (yay!) where they are neither FT or organic (boo!) but loose (yay!). I have read those surveys which tell you which things you should buy organic if possible and bananas are always on there, so in this case I always go for the supermarket organic.

    Flour I buy in bulk from either Wessex mill or Shipton mill. Mostly organic, sometimes not.

    I think local is probably the top of the list for me. That generally ticks all the other boxes (apart from perhaps price. And then we’re back to square one…) Maybe organic should be at the top but I can’t reconcile that with flying things halfway around the world…

  8. Hi Jen. Did you read my blog about this a couple of weeks ago? My problem is that when we are on such a tight budget I find it really hard to shop ethically as cheaper prices for ‘non’ethical products mean I can stretch the budget.

    • I did Jo-I had been struggling for a little while with all the issues myself, and I think your post prompted me to put the thoughts down on paper (well, computer..)
      Price is certainly a huge factor for everyone when deliberating all these choices. As I said earlier, I can’t quite understand how food that has had expensive chemicals sprayed on it, and is then flown halfway around the world is cheaper than the locally grown organic stuff (I understand about lower crop yields etc with organic, but the cost of flying them must be huge)

      • What also annoys me is that any food grown (say in India for example) that isnt deemed ‘perfect’ enough for the UK Supermarkets is destroyed rather than offered for sale to the local populations. I saw a programme about this a few years ago and it really makes no sense whatsoever!

  9. I agree the other day i wanted Braeburn apples [the familys favorite] I could buy British from the local Aldi in a poly bag or AUSTRALIAN from the local greengrocer. I went for the british apples but was it the right choice? Marriages organic flour is milled in Essex about 2 miles from me and is the same as Waitrose Organic flour if that helps anybody it is also grown in Essex.

    • It’s so hard! I sometimes end up almost paralysed by indecision, and feel bad no matter what I choose!
      Thanks for the tip about the Marriages flour-will keep my eye out for it

  10. Probably the biggest ever question asked. Price, airmiles, seasonal, British. I buy meat from the village butcher or the organic farm up the road but it’s expensive. Bread from the village baker but they have started using GM oil which I’m not impressed with! Fruit,veg and everything else from the nearest supermarket (13 miles) as the local deli are very expensive and don’t label which products are local. However I do look at labels and at least try and go for British and seasonal. Not impressed with 3in strawberries!

    • Hi Anji
      Sounds like you are doing a great job!
      We buy nearly all out meat from the butchers, and find it cheaper than the supermarket, although I do think you have to choose your butcher-one of the one’s in town is really quite expensive, whereas we use one near hubby’s work in the next town, and they are fantastic-so friendly and helpful, and the meat is great value.
      We don’t have a proper local baker anymore-only a Reeves, and I question how ‘local’ the bread is…

  11. As I work most Saturdays farmers markets are not an option & living alone the Organic Box would be too much for one. I tend to shop in supermarkets I pass on the way home from work to save making a special journey. I see what’s reduced & would end-up in land-fill first, then the money I’ve saved helps me afford the organic or fairtrade food I’d like. Any stretchy plastic can go in with the carrier bag recycling bin (I use only canvas shopping bags) I’ve become almost veggie & grow some of my own food. Its a balancing act trying to “do the right thing” but any improvement is better than none !

  12. It’s so nice to read this post by you, it’s basically the same conversation I had with OH last week! I can buy lots of cheap veg from the local market and meat from the local butcher, but where have they come from. They’re certainly not organic, are they even British or in the case of the chicken, well reared? I can go to the supermarket and know that I’m getting organic or British food. However I am wanting to move away from supermarket shopping and shop locally. Hence taking me full circle again. I do get (non organic) milk delivered by the milkman and an organic fruit and veg box from Abel And Cole, but what about everything else? I look forward to reading through the comments every makes on this post for further ideas.

    It’s so hard to answer the ethical question of food shopping. What are the the priorities?

  13. We just did the Local Harvest Challenge in Australia last week and this brought some of these thoughts back, though the positivity of doing anything, as opposed to procrastinating through perpetual angst, has got to be the go. We hardly challenged ourselves and than didn’t even get all that done. We had all the excuses under the sun (there was no sun, we were not well, we had no funds, etc, etc, blah, blah, blah) and had some negative thoughts about our inability to succeed.

    Come the last day we breathed life into our resolve and owned our actions. Our decision was to continue some of the challenges over (as life changes don’t need to be all done in one week). We really enjoyed that last day and did things that were out of the ordinary for us. Think, learn, act. Too easy.

    As an old song from my day (the 1970’s) says, “You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself”. Some things will effect you deeply and some will merely come to mind and, as you said, some things don’t even come to mind.

    Don’t throw out everything you know and call it all propoganda only to be consumed by misinformation and half truths. Live, love, learn and make a change or a difference were you feel you are able (physically, mentally, spiritually or financially)

    Who knows, one day you might live in a different place, follow different practices, have different financial priorities….or you might continue where you are and change a few things or ask your local businesses to change a few things. All things are possible..

    Enjoy the journey; the destination is unknown.
    Take care

      • Hi again Jen,

        Sorry it took so long to answer. Had some computer problems.

        Local Harvest is a not for profit that promotes buying local. I’m in Australia, but they are based on Local Harvest in US. They have interactive maps for finding everything from cafes to co-ops.

        The challenge involves picking activities from an extensive list (easy as or full on; it’s up to the individual/team).

        Great kick start to getting to know our food, and our local community, better and a bit of fun as well.


  14. Pingback: Happy Earth Day! | My Make Do and Mend Year

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