The Truth About Seasonal Shopping and Major Supermarkets
According to a recent Statista report, the retail grocery market in Australia is worth around AU$90 billion per financial year and is dominated by two, large national companies. These are Woolworths and Coles, each with around 30 per cent of the market share – although Woolworths is slightly ahead. Lagging some distance behind in third place is smaller supermarket chain Aldi, with just 11 per cent of the market share.
With so many taking advantage of this one-stop shopping for everything from simple hardware and small appliances to frozen dinners and fresh produce, our local supermarket has the ability to influence everything from which brands or products become household favourites to the type of food we eat.
Major supermarkets' influence on seasonal eating
The fact that the asparagus we’re getting in June might come from Peru or Mexico, the summertime citrus fruits may come from Egypt or California, and the tomatoes we get in winter were probably grown in greenhouses are things we don't consider.
Between modern consumerism and the desire of supermarkets to satisfy our every purchasing demand, most people have completely forgotten that fresh produce actually has seasons. These days, we are used to walking into a supermarket and getting just about any fresh fruits and vegetables we want, no matter the time of year.
Savvy shoppers might notice that some of their favourite fruits and vegetables are more expensive in certain months. Or they may actually pay attention to the little stickers that say "this item was imported from (insert country here)." But beyond that, supermarkets don’t actively try to keep their customers informed on what fresh produce is actually in season at the moment. That’s not to say they don’t do it at all.
Major chains like Woolworths and Coles have started to include producers profiles and seasonality charts on their websites. It’s not something you’ll find while casually browsing the site, though. Food trends for 2021 show that we want to eat healthier. And a side effect of the bushfires in 2019/2020 and the global pandemic is that we also want to eat more sustainably and locally as possible.
And, this happens to translate to eating seasonally. But if we don’t know what is in season and the stores where we do most of our shopping make it difficult to find that information – then how can we be sure that the fresh produce we’re buying is supporting the environment?
Why should we eat seasonally?
It makes perfect sense that food that hasn’t been shipped across an entire ocean before ending up on our dinner plate reduces our carbon footprint, thereby combatting climate change and helping the environment. But when the argument can be made that just driving to the supermarket can counteract the benefits of buying local – why should we eat seasonally?
When you are buying food that isn’t in season, it usually means that it either has had to travel a long way or has been grown in carefully controlled conditions. And that can make it more expensive. Fresh produce that has been grown in local, natural environments means lower production costs and therefore a lower price for you.
Better nutritional content
Studies have shown that certain vegetables such as spinach and broccoli have different amounts of vitamin C depending on the season they were grown in. Further, other studies have found that once a fruit or vegetable is harvested, it starts to lose certain nutrients. Foods that have to travel long distances are also harvested early and left to ripen in refrigerated cargo holds rather than in natural sunlight. All of this adds up to fruit and veg that is not quite as healthy as it seems.
Off-season produce doesn't just magically wait for you to be ready to buy it before it starts to ripen. It has to be grown in artificial environments or chemically treated so it can be safely stored for any length of time without turning into a rotten overripe mess. And that means pesticides, preservatives, wax coatings and then ripening agents are needed before they’re ready to be sold.
So what needs to change?
The thing you have to remember about national supermarket chains is that they have the financial burden of keeping their shareholders happy. This means they have to cater to the needs and wants of an entire country while maximising their revenues in any way they can. What this boils down to is that if we want supermarkets to support seasonality, we as consumers have to change the way we shop.
We should stop heading to large supermarkets like Woolworths and Coles simply because it's more convenient. Instead, we should be doing everything we can to reduce our eco-footprint. And one of the ways to do this is by choosing shopping venues where the focus is more on individual customer satisfaction and community support than on the bottom line.
As demonstrated by the ethical shopping pyramid found on Sustainable Table, this would mean that you should, where possible, get your fresh produce from the following places:
• Farmgate or fresh off the boat – Some farmers and local fishermen are more than happy to sell directly to the public. So hang around the docks or take a drive out to the country and ask around.
• Food co-ops – These are member-owned stores/groups that use their collective buying power to purchase bulk quantities of groceries that are locally and ethically sourced, and that may also be organic.
• Food hubs – These are businesses or organisations whose job it is to source, market and distribute from local and regional producers specifically for wholesale, retail and institutional demands.
• Bulk food stores – These are stores that offer bulk quantities of unpackaged produce, usually dry goods such as pulses, grains, flours and more, most often sourced locally. Their use of little to no packaging also supports sustainability by reducing landfill waste.
• Accredited farmers’ markets – These are markets where local farmers, small plot owners and even backyard growers come together to sell produce they’ve grown themselves.
• Community-supported agriculture (CSAs) – These are essentially community farms where local residents provide support that may include labour, time, expertise, costs and/or pledging to buy part of the harvest when it is planted.
• Grow your own, food swaps – Growing your own fresh produce is always the best option because you control what pesticides and fertilisers you use, as well as being able to harvest produce as you need it. And when you have an excess of anything, you can trade with another local home grower who has done the same.
Become a seasonal shopper
At the end of the day, it is not the responsibility of supermarkets or any other type of shop to help you become a sustainable eater or shopper. You need to make the effort to educate yourself on what produce is in season at what times of the year, find out where the products you’re buying have been sourced and do what you can to contribute to protecting the environment.
Eating seasonally is just a small part of a much larger equation when it comes to how our food affects our carbon footprint. How it was grown, harvested, stored and transported also have an impact. Certain foods, such as beef, also contribute more to greenhouse gasses than most naturally grown plant-based foods.
There are some who will say that seasonal eating makes life difficult for the average shopper and it doesn't do much to help the environment. But the benefits of seasonal eating more than outweigh any negatives, particularly when it supports local producers who are prone to more humane and ethical farming, as well as practices like crop rotation and allowing the soil to rest. This adds up to fresh produce that is more nutrient-dense, tastes better and is far easier on your grocery budget.