Oh, supermarkets, what are we going to do with you?

It seems you’re embroiled in a certain love-hate relationship with many of us.

Think of those farmers: they stock many of your vast shelves, yet often remain resentful for being squeezed. Or the upwardly-mobile, who slag you off in public, all while filling your coffers. Even food waste activists, perhaps your most virulent critics, have also been known to sing your praises.

However you slice it, dear supermarkets, it seems we just can’t take our eyes off of you.

Here in Canada, for example, you recently roused our spirits by bringing ugly fruit to your shelves, all while appropriating it as a new, cost-saving “brand” promising to quell food waste.

Meanwhile, in Denmark, you waded into the edible insect trade, only to pull them from the shelves two days later without telling us why.

In Alberta, you convinced the Blood Tribe of your merits, who hope to leverage your model on their land.

Yet this nagging question remains: do you really help us gain access to food? Or do you just stand in the way—-you big, boxy bully?

Over in the Bronx, a recent high-profile study seems to suggest the latter.


The NYU report investigated the effects of a 17 000 square foot Associated Foods supermarket in a known food desert, Morrisania, a neighbourhood with high rates of: “heart disease, obesity, diabetes…depression, infant mortality, mental illness and HIV…”

Its $1.1M 2010 opening costs were incentivized to the tune of $449 000 (about 40%).

However, the team reported no “significant changes in household food availability” to neighbourhood children, with an equal dearth of improved “dietary intake.” Don’t dismiss this as a one-off, supermarkets: the study’s vast sample size (about 2000 children) and lengthy duration (before, during and after the opening) suggest that even your government-fuelled spinoffs might fail to offer tangible benefit to those most in need.

Another recent article goes even further, claiming that you might be causing some of these problems to begin with.

In “Supermarkets are the problem,” Deborah A. Cohen at Slow Food USA surveys research on impulse purchases at the cash register alongside nefarious-sounding “slotting contracts” in your end-of-aisle displays. In a decisive verdict, she holds you structurally accountable for obesity and chronic disease.

Now listen up, supermarkets, because what I’m going to say might surprise you. I think we should cut you some slack.

First, determinist conclusions like the latter should be taken with a grain of your finest No Name salt.

It’s not only deceptive to pluck out and blame you from within a living, breathing, increasingly-complex wider food picture, it’s dangerous. By over-emphasizing government regulation as an ultimate cure, it effectively disempowers us everyday eaters of the education, choice, and agency we already possess—the type of things we really should be encouraged to strengthen.

If for no other reason than you’re not going anywhere soon, we’ve no doubt got a lot to negotiate.

Practically speaking, we all find ourselves in your aisles from time to time. Sometimes we’ve driven a long distance to greet you. Other times, we’ve just met you halfway.

Other times, for many of use, we just get squeezed for options and feel almost forced to wander your aisles. Yet rather than praying to be saved or averting our gaze, it would be better to simply open our eyes.

Back in January, I speculated that Canada’s world-leading habit of food waste might soon become too embarrassing to ignore. Following the (real) experts, I pointed towards supermarket waste reform in particular as a key to stemming this horrid tide.

It seems that last week, one food giant stepped up to the plate.

Well, sorta.

Though it didn’t touch on the waste problem directly, Loblaws announced that it will roll out the sale of blemished produce.

So, in what is perhaps a first for Canadian corporations, a supermarket giant acknowledged that un-cosmetic produce was actually fit for human consumption.

Sure, it’s a damn small victory. And despite the welcome news, Canada is a latecomer to the ugly fruit game as far as supermarkets go. UK chains began the practice in 2012, while France’s Intermarché giant scored a hit with their Inglorious vegetables campaign last year.

What’s more, if you’re reading Forget the Box, you probably get your fruit from farmer’s markets, “Good Food” boxes, overpriced épiceries, dépanneurs, or hell, any other store than a supermarket. So, you’ll probably be quick to chastise Loblaws that this particular brand of “responsibility” is about ten years too late.

Still, could it help our society, in some tiny way?

Let’s look at what we do know.

The Loblaws produce will come packaged under the label “Naturally Imperfect,” and will stand alongside its picture-perfect cousins, boasting near-equivalent taste. The brand will apply only to apples and potatoes at first, though others are said to be on the way.

Those deeply-discounted apples in the saran wrap (think pink 50% off sticker), will not be affected due to this change.

Rather, couched in packaging that hearkens back to their popular, 90s-era “Green” and “No Name” brands, the cut-rate, yellow-bagged produce will stand as its own brand, buffered by similar rhetoric that brought the latter to fame.

“If you were to grow produce in your backyard,” says Loblaws senior Director Dan Branson in the Financial Post, “there’s a lot that would grow that wouldn’t look as pretty as what you would see in a grocery store.”

He goes on, reminding us that even “Mother Nature doesn’t grow everything perfectly.”

You can almost feel the spirit of Arlene Zimmerman rising from this golden marketing-speak.

I imagine her leaping from her Dragon’s Den armchair, blemished McIntosh in hand, telling a would-be entrepeneur, “I’m in. Knotted, ugly vegetables are 100% on-trend.”

So while “Naturally Imperfect” promise a return to the mass market for tonnes of neglected apples and potatoes, it is also a new “product” in its own right.

The homely castaways seem expertly engineered to cash in on a portion of the market that—for some insane reason—other chains have been afraid to tap.

The product is already selling PR-wise. Loblaws’ official announcement last week was a runaway media success, with nearly every single mainstream news organizations picking up the press release—most funnelling it through largely untouched. Even hip restos got behind the announcement, sharing it in droves.

You have to wonder why an influential brand like Loblaws waited so long to cash in.

All hype aside, I truly do hope this will have some meaning.

Perhaps the trend will ripple through other chains.

Or, at the very least, perhaps a sheltered Canadian child might get to see what normal vegetables look like—possibly for the first time in their lives.


It’s increasingly hard to miss the undercurrent of restless dissatisfaction; the evolution in the conversations we’re having, in the stands and sacrifices we’re willing to make. Something is changing. If you’ve never heard of Buy Nothing Day, this is the year to get with it. It’s just an annual day of action (or inaction, really) in 65 countries (says the Wiki) celebrating its 20th year backed by those kids over at AdBusters.

You know, Adbusters? Those idealistic troublemakers who pull shenanigans to stir the pot. You may know them from their recent work, creating a little trend now called the Occupy Movement. Now that I have your attention, Buy Nothing Day is exactly what it sounds like: a day – one measly day – of abstaining from consumerism. If ever there was a holiday who’s time had come, it’s this one.

Some readers are scratching their heads and asking why. Why, in a country designed for consumption at almost every price point (btw, Dollar-Rama needs a kitschy name like Sally Ann and Tar-Jay), why would anyone avoid spending unless it’s to save up for something bigger?

Well, have you ever gone through a day of doing nothing special, ending with a lighter wallet and little or nothing to show for it? Sure, we all do it too often, and that’s creepy. Consumer society has become so pervasive that we don’t even notice ourselves spending. If it doesn’t cost much, what’s the harm? We may as well. We deserve it.

We’ve stopped the majority of of our critical thinking about purchases, and are left with the bare minimum of “can I afford this?” which should be the last question in a string beginning with “do I need this?” That lack of critical thinking is symptomatic of addictive or obssessive behavior.

The first few times you do something, your brain goes on overdrive to make a logical (or at least conscious) decision. After it makes the same decision a couple of times, it skips the foreplay and jumps right in, and voila, you’re putting out a cigarette you don’t remember lighting. When we spend without noticing, shop as a distraction, a mood booster, or to fill the space where je ne c’est quoi turns into an indefinable void, we’re consumer crackheads.

Everyone has that “thing” they buy even when they know they don’t need it. Maybe it’s the lattes that cost as much as a lunch ought to, or new shoes, car accessories, video games (spend real money on virtual gear! I’m looking at you Zynga, and anyone who sells online maps). Personally, I love lip-gloss and nail-polish so much that I’m disappointed if I can’t find any to buy, and will settle for something I only sorta like.

See how that’s backwards? And to make matters worse, just think of how you didn’t even know you wanted that thing that time but it was on sale Sale SALE! Save 25% of the money you weren’t going to spend until you saw this sign!

For one day, save 100% by walking on by. At a time when people are calling everything into question, it’s time to remember that we work hard for each dollar, making the real value of each buck pretty significant, but not the be all and end all. Spend a day enjoying living rather than purchasing. Fill your tank and charge your Opus card the day before, pack your lunch, make your own damn coffee (which is in and of itself such a luxury in the global scheme that we should be grateful for every cup, including instant), have friends over for a potluck instead of an overpriced night of shouting over muzak. Plan ahead as though we live in a village instead of a vending machine. Curb your consumerism. It may not change the world, but it will sure make you more conscious of your own actions, desires, and actual needs for a day.

This year, I’m doing it, and I know it won’t be a cakewalk. I am wholly aware that as I write this article, I am in my head trying to justify the purchase of a new travel mug and super cute new purse sized water bottle, each $20, both from Starbucks (*cough), but I’m determined to make it through November 25th without buying so much as a lollipop. Are you up for the challenge? Leave a comment and let me know what you think.

More Ways to Buy Nothing

Co-op La Maison Verte is doing their part yet again, with their anniversary party and free Buy Nothing Day celebration potluck all rolled into one on Sunday, November 27. There will be a jam session and activities for the kids, so head out and wish them a happy 11th bday, while buying nothing.

Adbusters is calling for a buy nothing Xmas, or you could Occupy Xmas, with locally shopped goodies made under sustainable and humanitarian conditions. Both movements are designed to remind us that the real gift is in the time we spend and the thought we put in, not the bills we rack up. I hope to see many “What would Jesus Buy?” signs this season.

These 100 Things to Do on a Money Free Weekend should keep you busy if you get itchy to spend.

Buy Nothing Day is November 25th in North America and November 26th everywhere else

Twitter me and see what falls out of my head in 140 characters or less @McMoxy

Black Friday Shoppers: Do you want to be part of this, really?

Today is the official start of the Christmas shopping season. Timed to coincide with American thanksgiving, it is the beginning of the glut that is western consumer culture’s moment in the spotlight (aside from, of course, any other day). It’s   also something else: a rejection of and protest against all that consumerism is and represents known as Buy Nothing Day (BND).

Founded in 1992 by Adbusters Magazine, BND has spread around the world and is celebrated annually by all types of activists, artists and people sick of feeling they have to buy things. The concept is simple: don’t buy anything for 24 hours. Some expand on it with theatrical jams directed at the heart of consumerism like one group is doing in Montreal today while others take it as a call to action year round to buy locally and only things they need.

No matter how people celebrate it, BND is something that has entered into our collective psyche and has done so through viral grassroots initiative. It hasn’t permeated our mindset the way that Black Friday has, though. Understandable if you consider the fact that the day of shopping has done so through top-down mass marketing campaigns and a helluva lot of cash. Not even a death during a rush of shoppers could stem the tide of buying.

Compring and contrasting Black Friday and BND isn’t a coke versus Pepsi argument as such a blunt opposition may imply. BND isn’t a competitor but rather a challenge and an alternative to brands altogether. If anything, it’s a Coke versus drinking something because you need it and knows where it came from and bought it previously with the rest of your groceries.

Today people will shop, just like any other day. But others will take a break and think. The real question to ask yourself is, do you want to do what’s expected of you in a capitalist society or do you want to try something different? The ball is in your court.

You know it when the temperature drops. Puddles solidify and soon the slush, sleet and snow come falling down upon us by the storm-load, sometimes dropping as much as two feet of snow at a time. Things die in this season. Things are buried and people suffer.

It starts with the massive force-feeding of irritating, annoying advertising. Lots of it. Holiday BS promoted and pushed heavily by the government, the church, along with various industries, all vying for your dollar until you’ve incurred so much debt you can’t climb back out of it. It is a season that starts with a lot of greed, avarice and debauchery, promoted and pushed and peer-pressured until you’re well past that boiling point. The advertising comes out in various forms. Some religious holidays seem to loosely coincide with this greed-fest, but they too, are a part of it.

The “Holiday season” is when right at the beginning of winter, we are encouraged to exhaust our resources, before four months more of winter. Some people pray to a fat corporate logo, which represents, in reality, the devil. The devil flying around the world and gives gifts to “Good” children and gives dirty coal and beatings to “Bad” children. “Good” children usually have generous parents and “bad” children usually have poor, stingy, or miserly parents. Children, choose your parents wisely. The powers that be have people pray off their greed and avarice and will their thrill seeking and wanton desires to be filled. They claim to pray for peace and try to guilt-trip people into giving much into various charities, while many of those who are in bad situations are only forced to worsen their own scenarios by giving in the few resources that they have to satisfy the needs and wants and desires of themselves and to make the wealthy remain so, cheapening their own resources in the process.

This is a season of death. This is a season of hardship. This is a season of disease. All of which affect us in various negative ways. It becomes harder to find food, particularly for animals that do not hibernate. Many creatures starve to death. The cold makes it harder to breathe and also stifles the immune systems. Pretty soon, hypothermia sets in,   while people start to develop often painful illnesses and begin to die of heart attacks and strokes.

The roads and sidewalks become slippery, holes begin to form in the road, causing breakages and sprains and injuries to axles and ankles alike. Vehicles require more fuel in order to warm up the engines so they can correctly run. Resources are sparse and people begin to get used to it, playing winter games, many of which cause other injuries, insults and upsets, all in a vain attempt to make the best of it, all the while freezing and complaining constantly.

…And then somebody throws a snowball with a rock buried in it right at my forehead. Don’t you just love winter!