The consumer trap

We foster more purchasing morals than ever before, but in economically tough times, can consumers always vote with their conscience?

I remember watching the documentary about the People’s Supermarket on Channel 4 a few years back and loving the concept. But I felt myself relating to one of the individuals being interviewed: whilst she supported the idea, it was simply cheaper for her to shop at one of the major supermarkets. And as someone who is quite conscious with what I buy and where my food comes from, there are times when I also struggle with buying something that’s cheap(er) over buying something that’s locally grown. And it’s not because I don’t want to support my local farmers or independent shops, but my income won’t always allow me to do so. This is one of many barriers that face consumers. On the one hand you might say I have it “easy” because I’m a vegetarian, but in times of austerity, is it possible to shop with a conscience?

I debated with a friend about these issues and he simply said that, at the end of the day, are you going to be able to convince someone on social assistance to pay double, or triple the amount for their food? Or to buy an annual membership to shop at a supermarket? When faced with the decision of paying your rent and bills versus buying locally-grown food, most people would probably choose the former.

Back in my university days, I was once down to less than £10 in my account, which I had to make stretch for two weeks. I basically had enough to cover my bus to campus and back, and just enough for groceries. I remember standing in the egg aisle and thinking do I buy the free-range, or buy the supermarket’s value brand? Although it was less than a quid cheaper to buy the latter, I chose it. When every bit counts, the cheaper the item, the better. I was buying more processed food (for convenience and shelf life), or I was skipping meals altogether. That was a rough two weeks, but for many people, that is a reality they face on a daily basis.

Earlier this year, Defra published a report citing the rise of food prices and shrinking wages as contributing factors to the increase in food banks usage. And this month, the Trussell Trust released a report that 913,000 food parcels have been distributed in the past year, an alarming increase from 347,000 the previous year. The report claims this increase in users is due to changes in the welfare system, payment delays, and rising living costs.

Jack Monroe, dubbed the “face of modern poverty” by the Guardian, is author of the blog, A Girl Called Jack. She argues there are two kinds of poverty: those who don’t have enough money to buy food for themselves and their family, and those who don’t know how to make their money last. Monroe argues that this lack of food education and disconnect is the root of the problem; if we can provide better education and resources to learn more about food and how it can be made (versus buying ready-made meals), then it can help alleviate food poverty. And perhaps we should be looking at ways how fresh or local produce can be made more accessible to low-income households, so it doesn’t become a lifestyle only certain people can afford.

To raise awareness of food poverty, many individuals and organisations are participating in the breadline challenge, which is living off of £2.50 per day for a week (approximately £18 over the seven days). The £18 figure comes from Helen Goodman MP for Bishop Auckland, who took part in the challenge last year, stating that amount is all that is left after factoring in bills, transit, and non-food items, and taking into account changes to the welfare system and the bedroom tax. It certainly isn’t easy; without question, I could spend the allotted £2.50 on coffee, almost on a daily basis. Essentially, there goes my food budget for the week. While participating in challenges like these is a luxury exercise in some ways, for many people in the UK and around the world, not knowing how you’re going to pay your rent and food is becoming an all too common notion.

These issues of food poverty, food waste, and food security are all intertwined; you can’t talk about one without referring to the others. I found that after participating in Recycle for London’s Food Waste Challenge a couple of years ago, I became more cognizant of my food habits. Although my parents instilled in me at a very young age to not waste food, I now eat and cook more seasonally, buy fruit and veg that isn’t cosmetically pleasing, attempted to become self-sufficient by growing a vegetable garden, and I’ve become more creative with my meals and leftovers.

In times of austerity, it may not be so simple to shop local all the time, but like Monroe, becoming better educated about food is a step in the right direction.

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