The Blog

Why Is Chard Too Hard for Tesco?

Why is it so hard for Tesco to stock chard? After all, their website sings the praises of 'real food', telling us that 'whether you're a shopper, a farmer, a master chef or an everyday cook, it's time to show food a little love'.

We've been enjoying our first harvest of rainbow chard this month. Grown in odd spots of a tiny back garden, it adds a blaze of colour to the flower beds and is a tasty addition to a meal.

It's not difficult to grow, which may be why it's a staple of community gardens and allotments. But not so easy, apparently, to get from a supermarket. My search on turned up the following statement: 'We did not find any products to match "chard" but we did find the following products for "hard" (376 items).' Top of the list was a 100g packet of grated Parmesan cheese for £2. At £20 a kilo, you'd think people might do their own grating.

Asda's online store struggled too. 'We're sorry but there are no results for your search phrase. Please check back again soon,' it said. 'Did you mean: chart, charm, card, hard, charged?'

So why is it so hard for Tesco to stock chard? After all, their website sings the praises of 'real food', telling us that 'whether you're a shopper, a farmer, a master chef or an everyday cook, it's time to show food a little love'.

We're all going to need to show food a little love, because Tesco's boss, Philip Clarke, was telling us last weekend that we'd better get used to paying more for it. He told the Observer:

'Over the long run I think food prices and the proportion of income spent on food may well be going up. Because of growing demand it is going to change. It is the basic law of supply and demand.'

The law of supply and demand he was referring to is the rising global demand for food - particularly from more affluent consumers in growing economies. But there are other demands at work too. Not least are the demands that supermarkets make on their suppliers.

Britain looks like producing a bumper crop of vegetables and soft fruit this summer. The laws of supply and demand suggest that this should bring prices down and that shelves should be heaving with fresh fruit and veg - rainbow chard included. It doesn't seem to be working like that.

On 13 July Feeding the 5000, a campaign against food waste, called together a group of volunteers to harvest more than 11,000 cauliflowers and cabbages from a farm in Lancashire. The supermarkets that had ordered the produce had rejected them: rather than sell them at a lower price because they did not meet the buyers' specifications, the supermarkets were happy to see them wasted.

On 15 July volunteers saved 400kg of strawberries from a farm in Kent; the supermarkets that had ordered them had decided they were too small. The food was redistributed to charities helping the increasing number of people who are too hard up to buy fresh produce from supermarkets.

This week Feeding the 5000 was calling for volunteers to help harvest five acres of spring greens in Essex that would similarly be wasted, as well as hundreds of kilos of strawberries in Kent. Far from showing food a little love, it would seem the buyers treat their suppliers and what they produce with a fair degree of contempt.

These are not isolated instances. Feeding the 5000 says it has evidence that up to 40 per cent of crops harvested in Kenya are rejected by their buyers, generally for cosmetic reasons. A more substantial study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, a body not noted for its rabble-rousing rhetoric, came to similar conclusions:

'Major supermarkets, in meeting consumer expectations, will often reject entire crops of perfectly edible fruit and vegetables at the farm because they do not meet exacting marketing standards for their physical characteristics, such as size and appearance. For example, up to 30% of the UK's vegetable crop is never harvested as a result of such practices. Globally, retailers generate 1.6 million tonnes of food waste annually in this way.'

At a time when hundreds of thousands of people in the UK are going to food banks because they would otherwise go hungry, wasting our harvest is an ethical issue, not just an economic one.

Philip Clarke has promised to do more to support British farmers. But the evidence of this summer's harvest, as in the past, is that this pledge may be as cosmetic as the values of those supermarket buyers who decide whether food is to be sold or wasted.

There are different ways of doing business: the local economic blueprint drawn up in Totnes, Devon, describes how local food networks can be developed to link consumers more directly with producers. Initiatives like Incredible Edible Todmorden show how we can grow and share much more ourselves, rediscovering skills that are disappearing and bringing together communities, learning and business. If we really want to show food a little love, we need to put our money where our mouth is - rather than with the kind of companies that find it too hard to stock chard.

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