Groceries

Joanna Blythman: Nothing beats face-to-face shopping

Home deliveries of food have changed the way we shop, but at what price? Our columnist discusses how our shopping habits have changed in lockdown.

I was ever-so-grateful for online shopping during lockdown. What a relief it was to avoid those socially-distanced queues. And the opportunity to support small producers was an added bonus. Restaurants closed almost overnight, plunging their suppliers into crisis. Cheesemakers, for instance, reported a terrifying 80-90% slump in sales. Fish merchants lost the chefs who normally snapped up most of their catch. It made me happy to think that ordinary retail customers, like me, could help them survive the crisis – especially my favourite self-employed chocolatier. Never before has scoffing chocolate felt like a service to society.

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There were other benefits; I sent boxes of cheese, chicken, and charcuterie to family as a way of saying that I was thinking of them, even if we couldn’t be together. I struck up a rapport with the driver who delivers to our patch from a major courier service. Our fleeting waves, smiles, and on my part, expressions of gratitude, improved lockdown life. I don’t think we’d even have noticed each other otherwise.

So I can see how you could get into the habit of ordering online. And yet, even as all those convenient lockdown deliveries were arriving, a nagging worry bugged me. What with all that packaging spilling out of wheelie bins, and all those fleets of fossil-fuel-guzzling white vans speeding through eerily quiet streets, it was hard to see how online grocery shopping could be environmentally friendly.

Yet, based on his company’s own research, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos claims that online grocery shopping produces a 43% cut in carbon emissions per basket compared with driving to a store. But what about all the people, like me and millions of other city dwellers, who do most of their food-shopping on foot or public transport? Surely that’s a whole lot greener?

You can argue the food shopper’s carbon footprint until you’re blue in the face, but the more decisive issue, from my point of view, is a social one. I find food shopping an intrinsically worthwhile activity, and enjoy and value bricks-and-mortar food shops.

How heartening it was to see so many small, local shops step up to the plate during lockdown! Lots of people who previously drove by their local butcher, baker, Asian grocer, greengrocer or wine shop on their way to the supermarket rapidly discovered, by necessity, the range and quality of stock in these stores. Local shops proved to be a lockdown godsend and a revelation to many.

I’ve avoided supermarkets because they crush my will to cook. I’ve given my business to small shops and markets. Partly that’s because I think they sell better food, but it’s also because they bring energy to my neighbourhood as signs of life and pockets of human activity. They create what urban planning expert Brent Toderian calls ‘sticky streets’, streets that provide a focus for public life, streets that encourage you to stroll and linger rather than drive by in haste.

So I have no intentions of becoming a virtual shopper as we resume ‘normal’ life. I think the food artisans I supported during lockdown will forgive me. Grateful though they were for online customers who kept money flowing through their accounts when their wholesale business nosedived, going forward they crave stability and security. The vagaries of web sales are no substitute for substantial orders from regular customers at independent food shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants. These businesses are, after all, the backbone of sociable civic life.

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman

Out of the crisis came creativity
Why our food choices have become boring
Every high street needs a refill shop
Banning eating on public transport is misguided
For health’s sake, please eat when you drink

How have you been shopping while in lockdown? Leave a comment below…


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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.