Life without supermarkets - Is it possible?

One Chiswick family takes up the challenge

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I like a challenge, particularly if it's one I think I can actually complete so when I was asked to take part in a BBC initiative to live without a supermarket for a week I jumped at the chance.  The idea was to empty the larder of tins and packets and the freezer of fish fingers etc. and do all my shopping at local independents.

Most Chiswick residents are aware of the extensive choice of food on offer locally. We boast acclaimed grocers, butchers, fishmongers and delis but just how practical are they all when it comes to feeding a family of five?  To be honest, I had expected to end the week totally stressed and penniless, but I soon discovered that the whole experience was really rather liberating. 

One of the reasons I accepted this challenge is because I am fortunate enough to live and work close to the High Road.  Another is that I am blessed with an excellent corner shop and a baker within two minutes from my house and, as the children and I walk to school every day come rain or shine, we never have the issue of car parking.

Unlike Philip Collins whose family has been in the Chiswick grocery trade for over 35 years.  Formerly of Devonshire Road, Philip now runs the family business from their market stall on the High Road. 

He told me "I remember when we had cars lining up from 7.00am on a Saturday morning.  We'd fill a box full of fruit and veg for £15, put it in the back of the car and away they'd go.  It's not like that now, the traffic wardens are out here at the crack of dawn just waiting for people to stop so they can ticket them." 

It wasn't the answer I was expecting when I asked how supermarkets affected his business but he went on to explain "It's all about convenience.  Sainsbury's has a car park and also people can use their cards - they don't need cash.  We can't take cards here so we lose out."

Devoid of self pity, Philip and his family have an encyclopedic knowledge of the produce they sell - and it's not just apples and pears, they can also teach you a thing or two about exotic fruit!  From the friendly banter to helpful advice you get so much more that simply fruit and veg from a local market stall.  It's a real grocery experience and one that consistently cost me significantly less than Sainsbury's.

One problem I did face was having to carefully plan meals and only being able to buy enough food for two days at a time.  However, I did find that I used all the food I that I bought which resulted in zero wastage.  No unopened bag of salad in our bin that week or a bruised apple that the children refused to eat which, considering that supermarkets alone plough 17 million tonnes of food into Britain's landfill sites every year and that around four million tonnes of this food is perfectly alright to eat, I was proud of.

Although my fruit and veg bill was significantly reduced, the meat and fish bills did rise but this was no hardship considering the standard did too by quite a large degree.  I shudder to think what my family would do without the Macken Brothers or Covent Garden Fishmongers but the one shop my family can't possibly survive without (even before the challenge) is our local corner shop.

Again a family concern, Sandips is an Aladdin's cave of a corner shop selling everything from batteries to hob nobs.  Open from 7.00am until 7.00pm six days a week and from 7.00am until 1.00pm on a Sunday, Sandips is not just a corner shop, it's the heart of our sub-community.  Dilip and his wife Parvati have run the shop for more than 23 years and they clearly value and nurture their excellent relationships with their customers.

The service they provide is second to none and one which entails Dilip spending up to two hours most mornings putting inserts into newspapers.  "It's one rule for supermarkets and another for small shops.  They get their newspapers all ready in plastic wrappings whilst we have to put them all together.  It takes up so much time but we do it for our customers"  said Dilip.

On the subject of price, Dilip admitted that he can't possibly compete with supermarkets so some items are a couple of pence more "But you only buy what you need when you come here.  You often end up spending far more in a supermarket on things you don't need."  he added.

Next door to Sandips is independent baker, Plum Duff, whose pies - I am reliably informed - enjoy legendary status and I defy anyone to resist a piece of their freshly baked large white bloomer. Owned and run by Bruce Duff, Plum Duff is one of the dying breed of artisan bakeries.   Both businesses support the local Southfield Primary School with donations for their various fundraising events and Dilip has recently become the proud sponsor of their football team by providing them with kits.

What I learnt over the course of the week is that, although it was much more time consuming, using only local independents was as far more satisfying experience.  I really enjoyed taking the time to speak to local traders about their produce and combine their knowledge with my imagination to create nutritious family meals.  The children certainly ate a lot better without me having fish fingers to fall back on and we actually used all the food we bought making the total cost of the week good value for money. 

Most of all, I was delighted to discover that it really is possible to live without Sainsbury's - and it needn't cost an arm and a leg.


Emma Brophy


March 25, 2006