Monday 19th February
Shopping and Consumerism
Supermarkets are so much a part of everyday life for many people that it’s hard to imagine life before them. We began our session about shopping and consumerism by watching a video charting the change from street markets to supermarkets, set in London and narrated by Sid James, famed for his distinctive laugh and regular appearance in the Carry On films. He described supermarkets as “spick and span and shining bright; a street market with a top hat on” and, interestingly, commented on the produce being packed up already so you know no-one’s messed about with it. Something I think we’d question now.
In the 1950s, when supermarkets started popping up in the UK, new and ‘exotic’ produce began to appear on the market as people came over from abroad, bring their food cultures with them. Retail has been changing ever since, with the introduction of self-service, then shopping trolleys, and then the dreaded “unexpected item in bagging area” self-scanning machines.
Supermarkets say that they give customers what they demand, however they also want consumers to spend as much money as possible, so will find as many ways as possible to make that happen. In her book, Shopped, Joanna Blythman claims that supermarkets have “…deprogrammed us as creative shoppers and convinced us that food shopping is necessarily a drag by making it a drag…”, which is why they can lure us in with offers to distract from the realisation that there is very little diversity in the store. Whether you believe that or not, ultimately, with more and more supermarkets appearing on the high streets, most belonging to the four biggest chains, Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s, we have less and less choice over where to buy our food and therefore, what to buy.
It seems that habits are changing, and we are shopping little-and-often, so convenience supermarkets (Tesco Express, Sainsbury’s Local and Co-op, for example) and discounters, such as Aldi and Lidl, are becoming ever more popular. Online shopping has increased, however the profit margin on this is much lower, and consumers tend not to make so many impulse buys. We are also spending less on food, with only 11 per cent of household income going towards food and drink in 2016, according to the Office for National Statistics. All of this means that the big four supermarkets are actually losing money at the moment.
What could be the future of shopping? Although it might seem like something out of a sci-fi movie, Amazon have begun flying deliveries out by drone in the UK. They have also opened an unstaffed supermarket in the US, fitted with cameras to track every item in the store, so that you’re simply charged via an app at the end of your trip. Amazon is using robots in its distribution centres and Ocado is using them to pack orders. If this becomes the norm, retail jobs will become a thing of the past, and plastic packaging will increase, as every item will need to be labelled for tracking.
If this all sounds a bit scary, maybe now is the time to look at Alternative Food Networks (AFNs). Although hard to define exactly, AFNs consist of outlets such as farmers’ markets, cooperatives and box schemes, selling goods that are, for example, local, organic and fair trade. They became popular after food scares such as BSE and foot-and-mouth disease. The corruption in the food chain led consumers to seek out different systems, and AFNs offered more transparency through shorter food supply chains.
On the surface, AFNs seem like a great solution, however they also have their problems. In theory, they are alternatives to supermarkets and mass-production, however some organic, local and fair trade goods are actually sold in supermarkets, perhaps making them more mainstream than alternative. They are also generally targeted at the middle classes or tourists, as in the case of Borough Market in London.
We had a look at the Buycott app, which you can download on your phone and use to scan barcodes of everyday products, to work out which conform to your beliefs of ‘good food’. Supposedly, it can tell you whether a company is working to save our bees, testing on animals, supporting Trump, or against GMOs. It’s a great idea for making the food chain more transparent, but if the system is so complex anyway, can we really trust their findings? The sort of people that might use Buycott are probably already seeking alternatives. For others, a trip to the supermarket with this app might just leave you with a pretty empty shopping basket.
Tuesday 20th February
The Media, Gender and Class
On Tuesday, Kevin Geddes came to speak to us about the portrayal of food on television through class, using British television chef, Fanny Cradock, as an example. Kevin, an alumnus of the Gastronomy course, wrote about Fanny for his dissertation, and has an ongoing blog about her called Keep Calm and Fanny On.
Kevin explained how Fanny Cradock taught her viewers how to cook dishes that could help them climb the ‘culinary ladder’. Through becoming a better, more ambitious cook, one could also climb the social ladder. By using French terms and including a glossary in her books, Fanny displayed her linguistic capital and taught viewers that it could be easy for them to do the same. The photographs on the front covers of her early cookbooks featured opulent table displays of fish in aspic, pearls and decorative napkin folding. She showed viewers how to demonstrate that they knew the latest culinary trends, which celebrity chefs still do today, but rather by fermenting vegetables than teaching people how to Vandyke an orange.
In the afternoon, we explored print media and perceptions of food and body. We’d been asked to bring examples of how the media portrays both male and female bodies, and of course they weren’t difficult to find. Although there still seems to be more of a focus on female bodies in the press, the notion of the male ideal has become more prevalent in recent times.
Initially, women distorted their body shapes through corsets and crinolines to conform to the ideal silhouette of that particular period. As corsets fell out of fashion in the 1910s, with designers favouring a slimmer silhouette as opposed to the exaggerated curves of the Edwardian era, women began to control their bodies in a different manner. The internalisation of restriction was done through dieting and eating disorders, which carries on today.
A slim and athletic body is generally promoted as the ideal shape, although images are manipulated in the media to create an unrealistic goal. Eating healthy food and going to the gym cost money, leading to this ‘ideal’ shape being associated with the middle and upper classes. The recent ‘clean eating’ trend has led to followers becoming obsessive about the purity of the foods they are consuming, known as orthorexia. The danger of a diet like this being endorsed by beautiful Instagram idols, is that people, often young girls, follow it without understanding the consequences of cutting out whole food groups and trying to survive off vegetables. With the power that television chefs and Instagram stars now hold, let’s hope there can be a wave of promotion for a truly balanced diet; one that gets the country eating more vegetables, but not vegetables alone.