Cooking for a year without a cent spent at Coles or Woolworths

I don’t much go into New Year’s resolutions, but this time last year a friend of mine suggested I resolve to not spend a single dollar at Coles or Woolworths for the entire year. Given my view of the practices of these two monolithic stores, and my food ethics, it was a challenge I wanted to accept.

The greenhouse emissions of the transport system that takes fresh food and other grocery items from their country or place of origin, to a wholesale market, to a warehouse, trucked to a grocery store, and sometimes onto a second or third store are huge. Products criss-cross the country, and sometimes the world. If you try buying a locally grown mango in Darwin, and it will have been shipped to the wholesale market in Brisbane, before being trucked all the way back to Darwin for retail sale. Then there’s the food miles of importing foods like garlic (commonly imported from China), lemons (often from the USA) or asparagus (from Peru) into that system for them to be bought to you in the off season. On top of that, there’s the hydroflurocarbons (HFCs) and hydrochloroflurocarbons (HCFCs) used in the refrigeration of all that food throughout its journey. Many of these chemicals are potent greenhouse gases. HCFCs also deplete the ozone layer. HCFC-22 is the most common refrigerant in Australia. 

I also have social concerns with both businesses. Farmers have been complaining about unfair prices for produce, and unreasonable contract requirements for years. The $2 milk wars were a very visual example of some of these practices, but similar complaints have been made by vegetable producers including those producing potatoes and onions. Indeed, in 2013, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission undertook an investigation of the major supermarkets. They began with over 160,000 complaints, took a deeper look at over 3,000 of those and commenced about 550 individual investigations. Around 140 of these progressed to in-depth investigations, resulting in more than 30 court proceedings, over 30 court enforceable undertakings, and the payment of numerous infringement notices. Most recently, the watchdog launched major legal action against Woolworths for unconscionable conduct toward suppliers. In November and December last year, it is alleged that Woolworths developed a strategy to demand payments totalling $18.1 million from its suppliers to increase the supermarket’s profit margin.

I have allowed myself to shop at other supermarkets during the year. In Canberra, we are lucky have a third supermarket chain, Supabarn, but the stores are entirely out of my way. So I have purchased very little from them during the year. Perhaps I would visit every 6-8 weeks and stock up on my favourite chocolate or some household items like cleaning products or shampoo. I shop at my local IGA relatively regularly though. I am happy to buy items from them because the service is friendly and personal, and I prefer to support independent and family owned/operated business. IGA stores are always stoked with items that are reflective of the locals and the owners, providing a community feel that I prefer to the nationwide grocery chains. While IGA still has some power of collective purchasing, stores have more flexibility to buy from local suppliers and don’t have the same power to force unreasonable expectations on suppliers.

Before the year began, I already bought the majority of my fresh food from my local farmers market. This resolution meant that I needed to better plan my food needs, so I didn’t need to dash to the shop for just that one thing to make dinner complete. The market is a cash only (pretty much) zone, so I go with my $50 and get my food for the week. I know the name of the person who produced every item in my market bag each week and that’s a great feeling. It is the polar opposite of the Woolworths/Coles shopping experience.

I recognise how lucky I am to have such a good quality farmers market so close, on such a regular basis. I firmly believe that weekly farmers markets are the way to change people’s shopping behaviour, with this regularity there is a viable shopping alternative that can be relatively easily incorporated into a routine. A fortnightly market may be OK, but a monthly market will only lead to specialty and luxury items that people might buy for a treat. A monthly market does not provide a serious alternative for daily food items.

I urge market organisers, and communities considering the beginning of a farmers market to plan for a weekly market, containing as much locally produced food as shoppers would reasonably consume within the seasons. I would highly recommend upcoming markets look for inspiration from the Capital Region Farmers Market. They take great effort to get good variety of produce so that it is possible for shoppers to buy all their food there each week. This does not mean that everything on offer at the supermarket is available at the farmers market, but with due consideration of seasonality and what actually grows in the region, you can easily buy food for a balanced, healthy diet.

Protein

I buy my eggs, milk, poultry, pork, beef and fish at the Capital Region Farmers Market. There is also a lady there who sells amazing tofu that she makes in Belconnen. Occasionally I buy some tofu puffs, silken or firm tofu from her. It is by far the best tofu available in town. If a craving for tempeh comes to me, I buy it from the local food co-op in town, this has been my only exception to buying protein at the market.

I buy milk and cheese from the lovely folks from Tilba, who bottle their own delicious Jersey milk and make a very fine aged cheddar. Sometimes I buy goat cheese from Leaning Oak, and other specialty cheeses from Small Cow Farm. I buy my eggs from Sam at Holbrook Paddock Eggs. It’s a family business producing free range eggs of the highest possible quality. Indeed, the eggs have won gold medals at both the Melbourne and Sydney Fine Food Awards the past two years.

I buy free range chicken, occasionally duck, and at Christmas a turkey or goose, from Thirlmere Poultry whose farm is outside Canberra. I buy beef from a very small farm based just outside Batlow. Gilmore Braes raise heritage beef cattle that have excellent flavour, in happy conditions. Once a beast is slaughtered it is sold nose to tail. I buy all my pork products from Boxgum Grazing, who now make excellent bacon. Their fresh meat is of the highest quality, and comes from happy pigs who I have visited on their free range farm.

I buy my fresh seafood from Hayley at Narooma Seafood. Her family owns the boat, catches the fish and brings it to market for me to buy. It’s great fish, caught locally, just off the coast. I also sometimes buy smoked or cured fish from Ann, at Cypress Valley. Her smoked trout is to die for, and I do love her gravlax. Sometimes I’ll buy some of her other smoked goods, I’m particularly fond of her smoked baby octopus.

Fruit, vegetables and other greens

I buy most of my fruit, veg and other greens from the farmers market. I buy all my staples at the farmers market: garlic (when it’s in season), onions and potatoes. I buy brassicas, root vegetables and other green things as they come into season in autumn, winter and spring respectively. These vegetables come an average of 200 kilometres to Canberra, but many are grown right here around town. I buy some salad greens at market too, but come spring and summer I do a lot of foraging, picking wild greens and edible weeds to add to salads and stir fries.

There’s not much better than walking downstairs to the nature strip to pick some purslane, wild brassica or sheep sorrel to go in your salad or omelette. It’s far tastier than shop bought greens, packed with nutrition, and doesn’t cost a cent. It’s also a wonderful excuse to get into nature and relax outside. It’s certainly a superior experience than a peak hour visit to the supermarket.

Outside of summer, I don’t eat much fruit, but buy a couple of bananas when the north coast stall is at market once a fortnight. In summer, I buy locally grown berries and cherries from various market stalls too. I also do a fair amount of urban foraging for fruit to eat and preserve. Canberra is blessed to have streets deliberately planted with fruit producing trees. There are also all sorts of sites with fruiting trees on disused land. Soon enough, community initiatives like the Lyneham Commons will also be bearing fruit.

Dry goods

I mostly buy my flour, nuts and dried beans from the Food Co-Op Shop in Acton. The prices are very reasonable, the range is quite extensive and there are a lot of organic options. The co-op is on my bike ride from home to my office. I take the clear cubes and reusable tins into the store and weigh the containers before filling them up. If you volunteer your time once a month, you get a reasonable discount on your shopping items. They have a good supply of other local fresh produce including fruit and veg, vegan cheeses, tofu and fermented foods.

My pantry

A post shared by Susan (@susansumptuousuppers) on

Sauces and condiments

The only tomato sauce I eat is homemade and I get it from my Dad. He also makes my tomato relish. I make other sauces from foraged fruit in the summertime. My two favourites are Canberra Plum and Ginger Sauce and Haw-Sin Sauce both of which I use in stir fries or to blend for dipping sauces. I buy things like soy from the local Asian grocer. Mustards I either buy from IGA or direct from a small scale producer. Ross O’Maera makes many of my favourites on Bruny Island. I buy my Murray River salt flakes from IGA, peppercorns from the food co-op and dried herbs and spices from Gewurzhaus.

I recently watched a great little video about how much change you can bring to the world by changing your own behaviour. It makes such a difference. Not only are you reducing your negative impact on the world, by choosing a better food system, buying into better, more ethical and sustainable systems, you are making a constructive difference. You are modelling that positive behaviour to your friends and community, and supporting others who are working and living in similarly positive systems. I love that I support the producers who are working in agriculture the way I want our food systems to operate.

Will you give it a go this coming new year? Can you do a year without Coles and Woolworths? I would not be surprised if you find it as enjoyable as I did.

If you’d like to read more about how I dealt with other household items, you can pop over to my other site: ishoblog.

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12 Responses to Cooking for a year without a cent spent at Coles or Woolworths

  1. Kirsty says:

    Great post Susan. It really does make a difference to know the story behind the things we eat. Well done on skirting the ‘big 2’ for a whole year. Hats off to the CRFM, they do a fine service to the community 🙂

  2. Well done on following your convictions. Some good ideas for locals like me on how to reduce reliance on major supermarkets.

  3. Taryn says:

    I’d be interested to know the difference in cost over that year, because whilst it would be nice not to have to worry about those sorts of things, some of us have to

    • Susan says:

      Hi Taryn. I live on a disability pension and spend about 2/3 of the income on my rent. So I don’t spend a lot on groceries. Some items are slightly more expensive. Some items I’ve changed to a cheaper brand and some items I do without. The past few years have been an exercise in identifying the products that I can do without, and this resolution was not one where I switched like for like, so there’s no way to compare cost in that way. I have shuffled around my budget to use less and choose items which better suit this ethos. Although I live below the poverty line, I feel the money I do have, has power, and chose to spend it accordingly. In the process I feel empowered rather than empoverished.

    • Susan says:

      Hi again Taryn,

      You can also see some of my old savings tips in this post from quite a while back: https://susansumptuousuppers.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/susans-sumptuous-suppers-savings-tips/

      I wrote the post when I was shopping for two. I now only shop for one. As discussed in the Coles/Woolies piece, I spend $50 a week on my fresh food. I think I would probably spend an average of $5 a week on additional food items from either the Co-Op or IGA. By additional food items I mean butter, rice, pasta, bread (which I buy from a local bakery who don’t sell at the farmers market).

      Cheers
      S

  4. Maura says:

    Hi Susan, my dream is to live like you……and other that can build an home active and not passive, for create energy with sun, wind and water, indipendently by all.
    Maura

  5. WOWZA… This is incredible Susan! I am ashamed to say that I do still utilise the ‘big 2’, they are near to me and the convenience of it trumps spending MORE time away from doing the things I love, but that is a huge copout, especially now I am rested after an epic year. Thank you for the informative post, I should know better. New goal for 2016, make an effort and be mindful of where all my food is coming from, and reduce my spend at the big supermarkets.

  6. Kat says:

    I like what u r doing being a small local hairdresser it is much apriciated when the locals support ones business . I provide some of my clients with 1 liter shampoo , wich is the ones we use in the salon, so mayby ask ur local hairdresser about it.
    Regarding shopping at IGA , I know they r not as big as The big 2 but some of them have more than one shop and owners not so local.

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