When foreign foods are removed from supermarket shelves, what’s left?

25 Aug 2017

What would your local supermarket’s shelves look like if all foreign-made food was removed? That’s precisely what Edeka, the largest supermarket corporation in Germany, did in a Hamburg store last Saturday, August 19th, in an experiment designed to show how reliant the country is on imports, and at the same time, counter xenophobia.

The empty shelves were filled with signs that read ‘So empty is a shelf without foreigners’, and ‘This shelf is pretty boring without diversity’. Spanish tomatoes, Greek olives and French cheese were all unavailable as part of the stunt, which, while certainly sending a powerful and necessary anti-racist message, also makes a deeper and perhaps unintended point about the nature of our food system.

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‘So empty is a shelf without foreigners’. Photo: Sascha Müller/Sven Schmidt

Slow Food encourages people to eat local, seasonal food produced on a small-scale wherever possible, but the Edeka stunt demonstrates just how impossible this is if we do all our shopping at supermarkets with intercontinental supply chains. It perfectly demonstrates the dysfunctionality of the entire supermarket system, and the fallacy that having avocados at all times, oranges and bananas is somehow our “right”. It is not a right. It is an enormous luxury that comes with a certain price, external costs for the environment and the farmers producing the food.

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Photo: Holger Krupp

In many parts of the world, particularly in the industrialized and post-industrial West, and especially in Northern Europe, the disconnect between consumers and producers is so wide, and the middle-men so many, that we have all but forgotten that our food actually has diverse agricultural origins. Even those unhealthy processed foods contain ingredients which were grown and harvested by farmers. The sugar in soulless factory-produced snacks came from a plantation, somewhere. Behind every meal there is the work of hundreds, thousands of people we will never know or see.

There have been several battles fought and won for consumer rights with regards to information on packaging. A full list of ingredients, nutritional values and country of origin (for fruit and vegetable products at least) are now expected on everything we buy. But is that enough? Slow Food campaigns for a Narrative Label to tell the true story behind the foods we eat, and reconnect us to the people who make it.

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