The People’s Supermarket is a food cooperative started in 2010 with the aim of providing cheap food for local people which is fair to producers and consumers.
A Channel Four documentary followed the progress of chef Arthur Potts Dawson as he sought to open a new kind of supermarket. His impetus to do this came from a strong feeling that the way that the major supermarkets operate is not conducive to good food, fair prices or an effective relationship between producers and consumers.
It is perhaps unsurprising that 70% of the food we consume comes from only four supermarkets; our high streets have been monopolised by large chains. Those involved in setting up The People’s Supermarket were worried about the stranglehold that these shops had on the local consumer economy and talked about a feeling of powerlessness in the face of such big corporations.
An element of this is how difficult it is to find out about the supermarkets’ procurement process. He cannot get any information out of the supermarkets that they don’t want him to have. So, he goes to the farmers and details their side of the process and the often difficult relationship with the prices they offer. He also highlights the issue of food waste by producing a meal for potential supporters cooked entirely with ingredients found in bins outside of supermarkets.
The idea of ownership by the people is central to the concept of The People’s Supermarket. But, as the documentary shows, agreement about what the shop should be doing wasn’t easy to achieve. The ‘people’ were not a cohesive identity. The area surrounding Lamb’s Conduit Street, where the shop is based, is a socially diverse community. Dawson wanted to appeal to the really local ‘people’ who live in the estates around Conduit street but many of the volunteers also came from more affluent households and the two sectors had different opinions. Arguments ensued over whether the shop should be stocking sundried tomatoes as well as potatoes.
The members’ meetings shown in the programme are reminiscent of student union debates but the agreement of those involved was essential because all of those who were members also ran the shop. Inspired by an American Food Coop, Dawson was seeking to run a shop entirely on volunteering. The unfolding of this vision is interesting as it charts the various problems both practical and ideological that the volunteers faced. Each one of them committed to giving up their time to work in the supermarket in exchange for a discount on the produce.
But essentially the problem of cost versus ethics is one which is highlighted by this project. The local people’s need for cheap food were being met by the big chains and these people did not have the luxury of putting an ideal before the demands of their purses. These big chains are also big employers whose flexible hours allow people to work who might not be able to do a 9 to 5; they have helped with the employment levels of women for example, as well as employing a lot of young people. The People’s Supermarket in contrast demands that people work for free in order to save the cost of wages which in turn allows it to sell food at lower prices than other shops.
Of course this is not the only reason. Putting the volunteers at the heart of the project is key to the ethos; a supermarket owned by, run by and used by the people. As with many of these ideas there are competing aims; an ethical business, cheaply priced, involving local people and there is a sense in which something’s got to give. Being run by volunteers makes this business sustainable as long as there are those willing to work for it but its longevity and whether it could work on a bigger scale is not clear.
Since the documentary was aired in February 2011 the supermarket has continued to run. Its members pay £25 a year and give four hours of their time a month. It has struggled financially but it has survived. An article in the Guardian in March of this year detailed the project’s difficulties in meeting the costs of the rates and their relationship with the local council. Zoe Williams commented of the shop that “You’d like it, in other words, but you wouldn’t think this was the start of a consumer revolution”. Perhaps a shop that aims to serve the people can only serve people in a very localised area with specific needs.