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Understanding the true cost of cheap food

Shop for your community - big is not always best

My favourite local greengrocers Peter Hajevsky and wife Mary O'conner at The Fresh ingredient in Georgetown with a bunch of locally grown lettuce. Little Eco Footprints

Shopping can be a bothersome chore. Or it can be a way to contribute to your community. It’s your choice. You can pop into the supermarket, check out via an automatic teller and support a large national company more interested in profit than people. Or you can wander into your local greengrocer, butcher or independent baker and chat to a familiar face and contribute to the viability of small business in your community.

One of the first things I did after our recent move back to Newcastle was visit our local greengrocer. After living in a town where the last one closed years ago, I was excited to have a greengrocer again. Mary spotted me and said "You’re back?". Her familiarity was a huge contrast to my visit to a nearby 24-hour department store. I made a purchase without speaking to a soul and a self-serve checkout computer told me "to have a nice day".

For some people, particularly the elderly, a visit to the local shops may be the only time they speak to someone. Do we want their only interaction to be with a self-serve computer?

For me, one of the main benefits of a local independent greengrocer is that I’m more likely to find local products. For example, The Fresh Ingredient stocks local products I’d never find at the nearby big supermarket. I can buy local Udder Farm Milk, locally-baked Bills organic bread, and Turners ice creams – made by a family business operating in Newcastle for more than 70 years. Plus there’s a suite of local fruit and vegetables including Sandy Hills avocados grown near Nelson Bay and colourful lettuce grown by Hinchcliffe Hydroponics near Cessnock.

In a quick visit to the local greengrocers I can easily contribute to a handful of local producers.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Peter, the other half of The Fresh Ingredient, told me their success is linked to the viability of all the other stores in their local shopping strip. "The chemist, newsagent, butcher, hardware store and so on – if any of those stores closed down, we would feel it." By supporting the local greengrocers, I’m supporting the viability of all the other small businesses in the shopping strip.

And the benefit doesn’t even stop there. Money spent in small independent stores tends to stay local, whereas money spent in the big supermarkets promptly disappears from the community.

The disappearance of small greengrocers is also disastrous for our farmers. With few alternatives than to sell to the big supermarkets they can be at the whim of their bargaining power

The consolidation of suppliers and distribution centres by the big supermarkets is also decreasing our food security. All the stock on the shelves of my local big supermarket comes from a single distribution centre in Sydney. The distribution centre also supplies more than 600 other supermarkets across NSW and Queensland. That scale doesn’t leave much space for small and local.

Carefully choosing where you shop is one way you can contribute to your community. We each have the power to make a difference. As Coles managing director John Durkin has writtenthere are 30,000 independent grocers and food retailers in Australia, which means customers can always vote with their feet”.

Let’s do just that. Let’s vote with our feet and choose to shop for our community.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 25th January 2015.