Sustainable Produce: Comparing Farmer’s Markets to Supermarkets

When it comes to ethical food, there are a plethora of things to consider. These include: origin, fertiliser run-off, pesticide, packaging, cost, health, intolerances and so much more. Shopping locally, growing your own, and dumpster diving are some ways of trying to be more environmentally-friendly. It all depends on what matters most to you and what you have available.

Like most people, I want fresh, healthy, delicious food. But considering environmental factors, I also want organic, local and packaging-free as far as possible. I consume a mostly vegan diet, although I do sometimes eat eggs from local chickens. Therefore, the majority of what I consume is plant-based. This is stuff out the ground or from a tree that really has no reason to be packaged in plastic. Yet if you step into any supermarket, a sea of packaging is what you’ll encounter.

One way I can choose to reduce my waste is by shopping at a farmer’s market. I’m pretty lucky living where I do in Bristol, because there are some great ones available within walking distance or easily accessible by public transport. Throw a car into the mix and Somerset is my oyster.

Below is what I picked up from the market today. It cost a total of £13.70 and most of it is sans packaging.

fruit and veg from market

To put this into perspective, if I went to my local supermarket and spent the same amount of money, it would have only included the items below:

fruit and vegetables

So, that’s no parsnips, potatoes, carrots, garlic, kale, bananas or leaks. And one less beetroot. A bit sad, really.

What does this tell us? It tells us that supermarket shopping your way around a plant-based diet isn’t such a smart move. It offers convenience, of course, so late night desperation shops are possible. But for the weekly shop of produce, markets are simply the better choice. Produce is fresh, generally local (well, whatever is in season) and they don’t force you to pay for the unnecessary packaging. Therefore, the bill is so much cheaper!

Whilst buying all this deliciousness, I spent a while talking to the owner of the place. I wanted to find out more about the trade, how long he had been in the business and whether he enjoyed it. I found out that he started the company with his then-wife 25 years ago. Back then it was a roaring trade. A couple a week in different parts of Bristol and he was raking in the money. It was very profitable, apparently. So much so that he was able to take 5 holidays a year in some of the most exotic places around the world!

Then, fast forward to the early 2000’s when supermarkets began opening on Sundays and it crippled them. Sunday markets – including his – were suddenly dying out in the blink of an eye. Supermarkets offered convenience: a place to get everything under one roof. So to the consumer, there was no longer a reason to purchase from the farmer’s market. It was no longer the only option. And stall-owners felt powerless to this change in shopping mentality.

Did he enjoy it, I asked. The response was oh yes, very much so. He just wished that the business was still booming, but that it was nice to see young people still choosing to shop for their produce this way.

This isn’t a lesson in history, but rather a look at where we can go from here. Whether it’s zero waste, local, organic or whatever else, farmer’s markets can offer it to you in a way that mainstream supermarkets simply can’t. Sure, we’d probably all like to grow our own or have a neighbour provide us with our goods each week, but let’s be realistic. Urban dwellers have more limited options.

I look around at my peers now and more of them each day it seems are finding a penchant for plant-based eating. With diets switching, now could be a great time to look at a lifestyle change as well. Can we go full circle and revert to more wholesome, intentional consumption habits? Support local and ditch the packaging perhaps…?

The only thing that I can’t recycle from my above bounty is the celery packaging. The kale and mushroom bags can be recycled and the rest will be making its way into my belly this week. Compare that to 10x more packaging from the supermarket equivelant and I honestly cannot fault it. You could argue that ‘well, everything isn’t organic is it? Or local?’ but I ain’t a saint. To me, right now, this seems like the best possible way of consuming my five-a-day given my options.

It can be easy to slip into feeling powerless as a consumer. You cast your eye on the sea of packaging and feel as though you’re fighting a losing battle. But remember that while you might not be able to change what the supermarkets are stacking on their shelves, you can choose what you buy and where you buy it from. There is mighty power in that; in marching to the beat of your own drum.

Use this exciting time while we’re still in ‘new year’ energy to perhaps re-think who you are supporting and where you’re spending your hard-earned cash. How would you like to look after our environment? Choose to support a local market stall and you’ll be sending less to landfill, that’s for sure. And that’s only the beginning. You’ll probably have a great conversation and a smile thrown in too.

 

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