Checkout at the checkout

I had this idea for a blog post aaaaages ago in Sydney when I found myself (yet again) checking out the contents of other people’s trolleys at the supermarket checkout. Admittedly, this was usually an exercise in smugness on my part but I am often astounded by the amount of rubbish people put in their shopping trolleys…

Where we lived in Sydney, while not an extremely affluent area, people were generally comfortably well-off. The other shoppers at the supermarket (as far as I’m aware) were not typically trying to feed a family of 6 on social security benefits. And so I didn’t feel too bad surreptitiously glancing into their trolleys at the chips, the muesli bars, the fruit roll-ups, the sliced white bread, flavoured milk, cordial and soft drink, the processed, packaged, pre-made, frozen food and thinking “Where’s the REAL” food? I was always proud to say that, by and large, my trolley contained none of that sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I am the first to admit there’s more room in mine and Mr L’s diets for fruit and veg (although we’d generally get these from the fruit market, hence their absence from our supermarket our trolley) but typically my trolley contains basic staple ingredients. Eggs, flour, sugar and butter (to make our own cakes and biscuits), rolled oats, nuts and seeds (to make my own muesli. Generally there isn’t a chip in sight (ok, so I’m not really a chip eater to be fair) or a muesli bar and yes, there will occasionally be a packet of Tim Tams but it’s not an every week occurrence. And so I’d hand over my money, put my groceries in my reusable shopping bag, polish my halo and toddle off home.

Where we live in Auckland is a lovely suburb as well, with a lot of money but it borders on a suburb (and we usually go to a supermarket) with a much lower socio-economic status and a high Pacific Islander population. Last week in the supermarket I found myself checking out the contents of the trolley of the lady behind me and I was astounded. Not one piece of fruit or veg but 3 large packets of corn chips, 2 packets of chocolate biscuits, the ubiquitous sliced white bread, 4 large bottles of soft-drink, a family pack of fun-sized Snickers and a giant “value” pack of “pork-flavoured” sausages…. I’m not sure exactly what had been flavoured to taste like pork, but the implication was that there wasn’t much pig in there. I looked at this large Polynesian woman and her solid, although probably not technically overweight daughter and thought “is that what you guys eat every day?” (Ok so it might not be, maybe it was for a birthday party or a big BBQ or perhaps they were actually on their way to the fruit shop… hmmmm).

But instead of feeling smug this time, I actually felt quite sad. I just thought “Look at yourselves! Think of how bad this stuff is for you! And it’s solo expensive!” This mother and daughter might have had loads of money for all I know, I’m not trying to stereotype, but in Sydney as well as Auckland, it wouldn’t be unfair or untrue to say that lower-income families are more prone to obesity. And I’ve never understood how people justify buying stuff like that on a budget- this trolley contained Oreos and Doritos, not just home brand chocolate biscuits- you can’t tell me that that stretches your dollar further than a bag of apples and a loaf of wholemeal bread. I’m in the fortunate position of never really having to count dollars and cents, but I just don’t buy the whole “healthy eating costs a lot” argument.

Is it an educational thing? I suspect a lot of it is certainly habit, which is probably more powerful than education. Maybe if parents are working long hours to make ends meet then convenient, packaged food is the easiest option, I understand that the last thing you want to do when you get home after a long day is cook, but that’s not just a problem for people with not much money, it’s a problem for us all, unless you can afford a personal chef/housekeeper (which most people can’t).

The cost of obesity and its related problems to society is HUGE. Ultimately people have a responsibility to themselves, I know that, but denial is a powerful thing and even fairly well educated people’s abysmal understanding of health and nutrition frequently astounds me. I just wonder if some government cash might be better spent on community programs like community dinners or cooking classes, school education and cooking programs, even vouchers or healthy food donations directly to families. I’ve always had a problem with the fact that people on government hand-outs (or, more accurately, tax-payer hand-outs) can pretty much spend their money on what they want, and gel-manicures and plasma-screen TVs seem to take an inappropriately high priority for some people. Giving people vouchers to spend at the supermarket or fruit market or, better still, food parcels would, I suppose, pose some logistical challenges but would surely save some money from the health care budget in the long run?

Perhaps I’m being naïve, but the obesity “epidemic” doesn’t seem to be improving and I just wonder about the cost we’re paying for it, financially and socially. Like cigarettes, junk food just seems to be too accessible to those who need it the least.

[Incidentally, after I wrote this post, there was a story on TV about pregnant Maori women being given vouchers as a reward for not smoking…. Obviously things like this can be set up…]

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