Jim Carroll

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A question of food

The decisions about where we go to buy our groceries raises many issues – and ensures massive profits for some supermarket operators

Inside Dublin's fruit and vegetable market. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Wed, Aug 21, 2013, 09:12


You could call it a meme of the moment, but the issue of food is never far from the table. In this case, it’s about where we go to purchase this grub which is dominating the discourse. There was the news story, manna from heaven for the silly season you could say, about the imminient disappearance of Superquinn from our streets. The Superquinn sausage may be saved, but jobs will be lost as Superquinn’s shops become Supervalu stores.

At last weekend’s Kilkenny Arts Festival, there was a fascinating Hot Potatoes’ discussion about our relationship with supermarkets with a bunch of diverse voices talking about how these giant retailers operate (perhaps manipulate?) with regard to consumers and suppliers. Ann Marie Hourihane has been writing some good pieces (here and here) in recent times about supermarket culture.

Then, there’s the news that plans for “a continental-style food market” in Dublin’s north inner city are back on track. Olivia Kelly reports that a timeline is now in place for work on transforming the Victorian fruit and vegetable market and we’ll be heading to the northside Boqueria between Capel Street and the Four Courts to do the messages in summer 2015.

It’s a plan which has been a long time in the works, as Kelly reports. But after several false starts – you can see the touch of the Celtic Tiger when she talks about how Restaurateur Patrick Guilbaud were once considered apt anchor tenants for the development (that one has sailed a long time ago) – the plan now is for “a retail food market that includes butchers, bakers, cheesemongers, fishmongers, and a range of other food producers, as well as greengrocers.” Add in the cafes which will probably flock to the area and you’ve a pretty decent proposition.

But that will only work if people go there to buy their bits and pieces. These days, the issue of purchasing food usually comes down to price for most consumers, something which all of the above news stories also reflect. The rise of the German stores like Lidl and Aldi – even moving into leafy capital city ‘burbs like Ranelagh, as Hourihane reports – is down to price above all else. We can get the basics (and, yes, Mozzarella and Parma ham are basics) at knockdown prices there to that’s where we go.

You wonder where the new market will fit into all of this. It may be modeled on those brilliant markets you get in so many European cities or towns, where people can buy the makings of their dinner by going from stall to stall, but that retail model has never been to the fore here for reasons from price to simple availability. The farmers’ market model too has always been considered too middle-class and expensive for many.

Can shopping habits be changed by the arrival of this market with its various outlets? Or is there enough choice already in the city-centre in the form of the big supermarkets, specialist outlets like Fallon & Byrne, the bazaar of immigrant-operated stores around the place, the ubiquitous rash of Spar, Centra and Londis shops and those evergreen Moore Street stalls (which are unlikely to move west beyond Capel St)? All of these shops must have enough custom as it is to remain open so where are the market customers going to come from?

Of course, we’ve become promiscuous, as a new report notes, when it comes to food purchasing habits. We jump from supermarket to local store and back again in search of the best or most convenient prices and options. If the market supplies what we want at the right price, we’ll head there.

The question of cost is never far away from the food debate. As domestic budgets shrink, the need to make do with less means people have to cut corners when it comes to buying food for their family or household. This leads to a plethora of issues, which affect everyone from the supplier (if food is cheap, the farmer or producer is getting paid less for their goods) to the consumer (if food is cheap, corners are being cut and you get horse when you think you’re paying for beef). The ongoing recession and austerity policies means more and more people are turning to food banks for a dig-out.

But cheap doesn’t necessarily have to mean unhealthy, as Jack Monroe has been showing to great effect. Monroe is A Girl Called Jack, a food blogger and writer who has been attracting a huge fanbase for her posts abut how she provides healthy, nutritious meals for herself and her young son on a budget of just £10 a week. Monroe shops from the reduced, own-brand and value shelves in her local supermarket in Southend and there’s not a microwavable ready-meal in sight. It’s proof that you can do a lot with a little if you have the patience, enthusiasm, ingenuity and drive to do so. Monroe opens up a whole new chapter in this debate and it will be interesting to see where this one leads