What price endless choice?

Photo by Tara Clark on Unsplash

Choice. We all want it when we go to do our weekly shop. Supermarkets, and their extremely efficient logistics processes, have sold us on the notion that our choice need never be restricted by geography, climate or seasonality – we can get pretty much what we want, when we want it. The ugly flip side of this choice is waste, and arguably one of the most egregious examples of green-washing that most of us will actually never see.

And it all comes at a very big price both to the planet and to struggling or destitute people.

It’s 10.30pm, and I’m in a leading supermarket on behalf of my local food bank, waiting to see what they have for our food bank clients. I’m always met by wonderful friendly staff, whose job is to hand over the loot. I’m walked around the various stations of marked-down goods by the employee, where I choose from the items on offer what I think our clients might need.

In 90 minutes exactly, all this food will have passed its sell-by date, and become a logistical headache for the shop. At midnight, it is processed to be fed, not into the people it was grown for, but into an anaerobic digester, where it will render up a only small fraction of the energy that went into producing, transporting, and storing it.

I am here in this supermarket late in the evening to choose food for families struggling because of insufficient hours offered by their employer, or unexpected job loss, large or unforeseen bills, illness, domestic violence, bereavement, caring for a loved one – the variety of situations is as diverse as the people affected.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, MP for North Somerset and in charge of finding Brexit benefits, once described food banks as “rather uplifting”. There is simply nothing uplifting about grinding poverty, or events that lead to someone needing to access a food bank. Food banks help alleviate a small part of the struggle for people who have no choice in many parts of their lives, and the food so kindly, yet so conveniently, donated by these supermarkets is another case in point.

Because the fact is, the supermarkets don’t, for the most part, give away what they can still sell. They give what people with the money to pay haven’t wanted, or what’s surplus because someone made a mistake and over-ordered, or because the weather changed suddenly and all those iceberg lettuces were left on the shelves in favour of the carrots and potatoes. What they give away will become waste food in a few hours, it becomes a logistical problem rather than the eco-salve it still is at 3 minutes to midnight.

Choice is then suddenly thrown into very sharp focus as the ultimate luxury it is. Waste is a by-product of the choice industry. You expect an unwaxed lemon to be on the shelf every time you go in to buy one in your favourite store? The flip side of that is that every so often something adverse will happen, and a food bank somewhere will receive 16 crates of unwaxed lemons in one go for their 40 households. Or 37 crates of iceberg lettuce. Or an entire pallet of eggs (ie several thousand) very close to their use-by date.

Now, our food bank clients don’t need or want to receive 5kg of lemons or six iceberg lettuces or 48 nearly-off eggs in the same week, any more than you do. But they have little to no choice about what is delivered to them.

Why do I say that this is green-washing on a vast scale? Having donated their surpluses, supermarkets can tick a box to say they’ve recycled x tonnes of food. For all I know they can write it off against tax. They don’t have the headache of dealing with it that they would have had as soon as midnight struck and the sell-by date was past. Instead, they save the staff time, miles and energy devoted to sorting it and transferring it to their anaerobic digester, in order to retrieve a fraction of the value and embedded energy of the fresh product.

And so the Cinderella services that are food recycling schemes step in almost literally at the 11th hour, in all weathers, to save the food from being pulped and to feed their clients at the same time.

Many of us simply aren’t aware of this. We walk into a supermarket and see carefully-curated collections of perfect foodstuffs laid out in pleasing arrangements designed to tempt us. If our favourite supermarkets had to lay their waste food out on the supermarket car park we might all sit up and take more notice. If we saw the ugly veg or veg deemed to be sub-standard, ploughed back into the field after a full growth cycle, we would be asking more searching questions.

Instead, this food is being greenwashed off the shelves and into the fridges or cupboards of people who are too ground down to complain or to ask if, maybe, they could get some level of choice in a life comprised of decisions made by other people over what they nourish themselves with. Being able to choose what you’d like to eat is a luxury not afforded to them.

The price of your choice is that someone, somewhere, has to eat the things you didn’t want. It may not be balanced, it may not be all that fresh, it may require energy that they can ill-afford to actually cook it, and it may be six icebergs in the same cold week.

What can we all collectively do about this? These are my thoughts, in no particular order:

  • Don’t get so cross about not finding exactly what you want in a supermarket, that you decide to shop elsewhere in future; the fear of losing your custom is what drives your shop to offer you these (arguably) unreasonable levels of choice.
  • Buy the ugly, unconventional, knobbly, fruit and veg; knobbly apples taste nicer anyway and all ‘normal’ fruit and veg has blemishes and flaws.
  • If you really really need a particular thing, arrange to go earlier in the day when you can be more sure to find it. Ask your local store when their deliveries come in so you can time it right.
  • If you want to get really involved, ask more questions of your local shop about the levels of their stock that go into anaerobic digesters or are ‘recycled’ through food banks.
  • If you make a donation to the food bank ‘bins’, think about what you would like to receive and the ease and cost of preparation for the recipient.

Finally, we should realise how extraordinary lucky we are if we have a choice in what we eat. Choice truly is the greatest luxury.