Tuesday, 14 May 2013

The wrong end of the carrot stick

Posted by Joel Halligan

A little while back I went to see a ‘play’ at Newcastle’s Live Theatre. This ‘play’ was, in fact, a ‘dramatisation’ of six months’ worth of researcher-led discussion around healthy and sustainable food systems. Cue four stereotypical characters: the older lady who sounded liked she’d smoked 40-a-day for most of her life, arbiter of The Sunday Roast, and a love for anything cooked in beef dripping (sounds like my grandmother); the young ‘lad’ reliant on processed food and who’s idea of treating his girlfriend was a Tesco’s Finest microwave lasagne; the mum trying to do the best by her kids but without the time to make the right choices; and finally, the older middle class man who likes to spend his time growing all his own veg, foraging berries from bushes and, harvesting roadkill. I’m sure we can all relate to one of them, right? Well, not me, I say, slightly uncomfortably.

Between them the characters hashed out, what seemed to me, an enjoyable but over-simplistic summary of apparently all that is wrong with our food system. The young man with a disturbing fetish for crisp sandwiches developed an irregular heartbeat because of it (I’m no doctor, but I struggle to believe cardiac arrhythmias have anything to do with crisp consumption), whilst the man who grew/cooked/killed his own food was held up as a paragon of virtue. Interspersed amongst the choppy dialogue were mock-TV adverts extolling the virtues of cooking your own meals and shock facts about how often British and Indian farmers commit suicide. The overarching message of the play seemed to be ‘supermarkets bad: grow your own/cook your own food, good’.

Now, let me get this straight: I’m not a huge lover of supermarkets, primarily because they’re far too busy. However, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that, like it or not, they’re here to stay, and also the fact that many (in fact I would hazard a completely not-based-in-evidence guess that the majority of) people quite like supermarkets (*cue gasps*). As mentioned in a previous blog post, I believe your average Joe(l) is looking for a combination of cost and convenience, at least many of the people I know definitely are, representative or not. I did try not to shop at supermarkets for a period, but believe me, tramping from pillar to post across Sheffield (this isn’t a thrilling prospect believe you me: it’s very hilly) on a rainy Saturday afternoon with a small suitcase-cum-shopping trolley, and then battling through crowds to make my way onto the overcrowded and overheated bus, is a period of my life that reminds me of why supermarkets were invented.

This excursion to the theatre did remind me of the folly of assuming that every other reasonable human being must also share the same desires and convictions as us. What about all those people who are apathetic and disinterested in ‘food systems’, beyond feeding themselves and their families from one day to the next? What would their views be? Would they be as militant and anti-supermarket? I feel that there may be some, albeit mild interest or concern, but it wouldn’t be as dramatic as we might like to think. I believe it’s all too easy to fall into the trap that, just because I scrutinise the ingredients and nutritional labels on everything I buy, regularly cook ‘from scratch’ 5 out of 7 days a week, and think about how what I eat might influence my health, that other people have the same interest about food and nutrition. It’s akin to when I smile vaguely, nod along and only half-listen when people talk to me about cars or computer games or modern gizmos; the finer detail is lost on me. And so, I imagine that’s how food is for many people these days, nothing more than a means to an end, with only mild concern for the detail, which does seem a bit of a shame to me.

Now, I’m acutely aware of how supermarkets may have played a large part in this, and why some people may dislike them so much; but should we really vilify them like this? No, I don’t think we should, because I don’t believe that any supermarket set out with this goal. At some point they were all just small businesses trying to make money (shock horror) and they wouldn’t have proliferated if people really didn’t want them. But, I do believe that they should take more responsibility, something which resonates strongly with yesterday’s attendance at the NiRES-hosted Food Policy Council workshop which discussed many of these issues around food systems which I’m still trying to digest (pun-intended).

As a final note, one thing I have been wondering about community engagement, is how realistic it is to expect to achieve a truly balanced sampled of views from the community when conducting qualitative research like this. Will you always primarily attract those who can shout their strongly-held opinions the loudest?

But, I’m an inexperienced researcher, with little experience of qualitative research, and so I’m sure somebody can answer this question for me with ease.

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