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I had to go and get some dog food yesterday morning. Right next door to the pet shop is a new Marks and Spencer's Foodhall and, joy of joys, I had £20 of M&S vouchers which I thought would minimise the damage that I was bound to do to my credit card. Peter was coming along to heft the sacks of dog food, so I reckoned I'd be spending a fortune.
I should have been warned when I saw that there were piles of baskets at the door, but I had to go hunting for a trolley. They obviously weren't expecting me to buy a great deal. I finally found a Zimmer-frame-with-basket trolley and we headed off for the first aisle.
Rounding the corner our eyes were drawn to the display of colourful vegetables. Runner beans, peas, sweetcorn were all elegantly presented and, considering that they had come from Kenya, they looked remarkably fresh. My heart sank at the thought of the miles they'd travelled and the pollution caused by the air transport. It sank again when I looked at the prices: £1.69 for a handful of beans which would just make a decent helping for two of us and similar prices for all the other vegetables in this display. The range of imported and prepared vegetables was extensive, but they were not what I was looking for.
Where were the more mundane vegetables then? Well, they were behind us. The layout of the store meant that we wouldn't have found them if we hadn't gone looking for them. The loose sprouts, carrots and other seasonal vegetables were all attractively presented and the quality was reasonable if not brilliant. Peter picked up a couple of baking potatoes for a light lunch. Both proved to be bruised when I washed and prepared them – suggesting that they'd been handled roughly at some point. At 91p for two potatoes I expected rather better.
Like the vast majority of sellers of vegetables Marks & Spencer fall into the trap of believing that they must be clean. Most root vegetables deteriorate when they meet the light and a little dirt is good protection. These vegetables were aggressively clean and more expensive than I would expect to find in what is, after all, basically a supermarket.
I was impressed by the encouragement given to people to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day. There were prominent signs showing that seven strawberries would make a portion; that just a few chunks of pineapples or apricots would count as another. I was almost upset at the cynical little voice in my head which pointed out that there were far cheaper ways of eating a portion of fruit or vegetables and ones which didn't involve eating imported food. These weren't so well marked though.
Peter loves pineapple and I did buy a pack of prepared chunks. My original intention was that he would enjoy it on his cereal in the morning, but we decided to have it at lunchtime. The pack weighed 240g or about 8½oz if you still think in pounds, shillings and pence. At a pinch it would have sufficed on its own, but it was improved by the addition of a sliced banana. I couldn't fault the flavour but at £1.99 for thirteen chunks it isn't something that I could justify on a regular basis. Labelling was good, with all the nutritional information required to make an informed decision.
My indulgence was a pack of apricots for ripening at home. They should be ready in two or three days and then I'll use some to make an apricot stuffing and the rest will be eaten fresh. An offer reduced the price to £1.99 for 14 fruits, which is rather more than I would normally pay and I wouldn't want to do this on a regular basis. Like most of the M&S pre-packed produce they were well packaged but even my inventive mind failed to find any use for the plastic container, which had to be discarded.
The theme of guiding us to the expensive products had been continued in the fruits. It was only when we got to the end of the aisle of expensive imported fruits that we found the nets of oranges and the packs of apples that are the staples of most families' fruit shopping. I felt manipulated.
Excellent use is made of space. Wine racks stretched right to the ceiling. Quite how you would have got to the top shelves I don't know as there were few members of staff around. At eye-level and just below (the prime selling positions) were plenty of smaller bottles – some as small as one glass. Profit on these is rather higher than on the standard 75cl bottles of the same wine. The selection of wines is good, ranging from the cheap to quite expensive and some of the dearer French wines which were on offer looked to be worth sampling.
I had hoped to find fresh fish, but I found none. Raw meat was limited, but I passed through aisle upon soulless aisle of prepared meals, convenience foods at outrageous prices. I looked at chicken dishes and found no information about where the chickens had lived. I feared the worst. I did buy a Lemon Tart at £2.29 for four to six helpings. It's well-packaged and has a reasonable depth of filling, which many such tarts don't have. I doubt that I could make it for less and it was a reasonable, tasty, but indulgent purchase.
I'd been hoping too for an extensive organic range both in the fruit and vegetables and meat and fish. My local supermarket manages it with a similar square-footage of floor space, but there was barely a nod to what is an important factor in my food shopping. I saw nothing of Fairtrade.
My trolley was looking rather empty, but I had high hopes of the breads, as there's an in-store bakery. Unfortunately this seemed to specialise in French baguettes and Danish pastries. I looked in the packaged breads for a traditionally-made wholemeal loaf, but found none. Eventually I settled for a pack of oatmeal rolls for sandwiches. At £1.09 for four they were rather more expensive than I liked. Better value though was the pack of eight crumpets at 69p and I bought some to put in the freezer. My heart lifted when I saw a sign saying that some bread had been "locally produced". Then I saw next to it "Made in Northern Ireland". I live in the Yorkshire Dales. If that's locally produced, how far has the rest of it travelled?
I tried to spend my £20 voucher, but I couldn't manage it. Eventually I bought a couple of birthday cards at £1 each and some liquid soap at £2.50 (extortionate!) and managed to get the total up to £17.03. Looking around at other baskets and trolleys no one else seemed to be spending very much either. The typical basket seemed to be a couple of boxes and a bottle of wine. I would imagine that it's a godsend for the single person or the working couple who have no inclination to cook a meal from scratch and the money to indulge themselves.
It used to be a treat to buy food at M&S, but it was something of a trial yesterday. Talking to a friend I began to wonder how much of this was down to a change in M&S and how much was a change in me. I suspect that rather a lot of my disillusionment was down to the fact that I've changed. I've become more aware of the issues behind the food I eat. I want to know that the chicken I'm eating led a healthy and happy life. I need to know that the person who tended the bananas that I slice onto my cereal won't die from the pesticides that were liberally applied to the crop. I'm prepared to indulge myself with the occasional mango or pineapple, but I don't need most of my fruit and vegetables to have been flown around the world when there are seasonal vegetables that I can enjoy. I need to know that the growers of my food received a fair reward for their efforts.
I would be poorer if I shopped at M&S for our food. I don't just mean financially either as that isn't my main concern. Our diet would be poorer. We enjoy our home-made dishes based on quality ingredients. We like traditionally-baked breads and seasonal fruit and vegetables. Worst of all though, I would feel ethically compromised. I need to be certain of the origins of my food, to know that all involved in its production have been treated fairly. I like too to have been able to make choices about the food I buy without having been manipulated into buying expensive food that's been flown thousands of miles. Besides, I don't really *want* to shop somewhere where over half the aisles are dedicated to convenience and ready-prepared foods.
I went next door for the dog food. It was produced in the UK, minimally packaged and better value than anything in M&S.