Let Schools, not Supermarkets, Inform Consumers

Campaign poster from Intermarché

Campaign poster from Intermarché

In 2014 French supermarket Intermarché campaigned to promote the purchase of grotesque looking but perfectly edible fruits and vegetables. What previously would have been rejects were bought from the farmers and sold 30 percent cheaper than their regular looking equivalents. To convince suspicious consumers, the supermarket even made soups out of these ugly foods to prove their worth. The campaign was wildly popular and people around the world, who learned about the campaign through social media, urged their neighbourhood supermarkets to do the same. If there was any doubt about this campaign, it was about the supermarket’s sincerity to do good.

But there is potentially a bigger issue than a disguised publicity stunt — food companies setting the tone on what is responsible consumption, providing the products associated with it, and making a profit (directly or indirectly via publicity) from the sale of these products.

Industries, with the help of the media, have long had a success in setting “socially acceptable” standards that not so coincidently also benefit their bottom line. In the early 20th century, liberal thinkers praised industrial food processing for freeing women from servitude to domestic chores, and the industries took advantage to resocialize women into “capitalist femininity.” Their advertisements spoke of women’s freedom to buy their way out of domesticity. Femininity, modernity, and respect were available of the shelves as packaged products of certain brand names. Judging by the number of “healthy” pre-made meals catered to busy women today, the food industry has successfully convinced women that to be modern is to be seen buying gluten free pasta at the supermarket, not sweating in the kitchen during lunch or dinner time.

In more recent history, marketers created women categories for toys, razors, shampoos, toothpastes, computers, and food; not because female is a weaker gender as the marketers suggest they are — thus explaining the “gentler” and lighter weight products — but because segmenting the market into smaller demographic groups allows them to sell more versions of the same products. All of a sudden blue is too macho for girls and Dove bar soap is too sissy for men unless the corners are edged.

How did consumers wind up relying on companies to tell them what to eat and what is an appropriate food for the persons they are supposed to be? It started with industralisation and the introduction of processed food. People, especially those who did’t live on farms, became divorced from their food sources, which became more remote as transportation technology advanced. Women stopped making soups or stocks from scratch and instead poured it from a can. Canned fruits and vegetables were better than fresh ones because the former, home economists purported, were more hygienic and efficient. Local butchers were replaced by plastic-wrapped meats for the same reason. Yesterday’s food producers became today’s food consumers who are highly reliant on food companies to advise them, but which often do so incorrectly, that beef is really beef and that a red snapper is nothing but a snapper.

Companies like the French supermarket can initiate positive change, but if the consumers are ignorant of the things they purchase, it dangerously affords profit-driven businesses too much influence over the meanings and means to be a man, woman, parents, and in this case, a responsible consumer. There is a need to educate consumers so that they can make informed choices for their own well-being; so that they not only buy grotesque foods from one supermarket, but are able to pick up ugly foods from any grocery store and know confidently that they are edible; so that when they are confronted with a speckled banana, they know to eat it quick because the sugar level is at its highest; yet they do not naively purchase every ugly foods that cross their path because, browning limes is really a sign of decay. It is safer to have these information coming from sources that have the (future) consumers’ well-being as their priorities (e.g. parents and schools) than from businesses which main interests are their bottom lines.

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