Thu. Feb 22nd, 2024

Burned by reports of rising prices at the major supermarkets, more consumers are turning to less mainstream ways to buy food and supplies, market sources report.

Farmers’ markets, local co-operatives and creative food distribution projects are gaining traction, as shoppers become more conscious of where their money is going during Australia’s cost of living crisis.

Shopper Alison White has welcomed the influx of crowds at the Capital Region Farmers’ Market in Canberra, where she has bought groceries for nearly two decades.

“At the supermarkets, the prices have climbed quite dramatically in recent years,” she said.

“But the farmers’ market prices are actually quite stable, they’ve not increased their prices as much — if at all,” she said.

A man and a woman smile while examining produce.

Alison White having a laugh with local grower Eric at the Rotary Capital Region Farmer’s Market.(
ABC News: Jade Toomey
)

Ms White said she appreciated the direct relationship she had with the people who have grown her food.

“The quality is actually a lot fresher than the supermarkets — you ask them about their produce, and they pick it on the Thursday and sell it on the Saturday,” she said.

“Every dollar we spend goes directly to them, there’s no middleman.”

Response to price gouging allegations

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A federal government inquiry is underway into how the major supermarkets do business with their suppliers, amid allegations of price gouging by the big players, Coles and Woolworths.

It’s an allegation the supermarkets, which effectively run a duopoly in Australia, deny.

Woolworths made a total net profit after tax of $1.62 billion in 2023, and Coles $1.1 billion.

Sarah Power, who runs the Canberra market, said shoppers were frustrated.

“I think what’s happening now is going to make people more and more aware of where their food is coming from and where their money is going to when they’re buying at the big supermarkets,” she said.

They are responding by choosing to spend their money locally, Ms Power said, which keeps the money within the local community, and comes with other benefits.

“It’s low food miles, it’s more sustainable, and you know the money is going directly to the farmer,” she said.

Cutting out the ‘middleman’

Orchardist Helen Ricketts, who grows stone fruit in the Riverina town of Young, said she no longer sells much of her produce to the big players, Coles and Woolworths.

“The problem we’ve found is we’re ‘price-takers’, not ‘price-makers’ there…we don’t know how much money we’re going to get for the fruit when it leaves our place,” she said.

Two women in a stall hand out bags of nectarines.

Orchadist Helen Ricketts (right) said the farmer’s markets offer a better outcome for her than selling through wholesalers.(
ABC News: Jade Toomey
)

Ms Ricketts, now one of the Canberra market’s regular store holders, said her orchard had been burned by the big supermarkets in the past.

“We’ve had wholesalers in the past tell us we’ll only get a certain amount per kilo for our fruit because one of the supermarkets has come into the market this week and they’re running a special, so that means they’re not paying much for the fruit,” she said.

“By the time we pay for our packaging, our freight, the agent’s commission, 25 per cent is lost on that chain.”

The movement to ‘un-supermarket’

Across town, Louise Harry’s garage is at maximum capacity with fruit, vegetables, bread and pantry items which are divided between community members.

She runs one of more than a hundred ‘hubs’ across the ACT and NSW, which use an app-based service called ‘Box Divvy’ to buy directly from Australian suppliers.

“The produce can be up to 30 per cent cheaper than shopping at a supermarket,” Ms Harry said.

A woman holds a box of fruit and vegetables, surrounded by shelves of produce.

Louise Harry runs a hub in Evatt that divides groceries between neighbours.(
ABC News: Nicholas Haggerty
)

The company, which has grown so quickly it is now at maximum capacity, is trying to capitalise on a movement to ‘un-supermarket’ grocery shopping.

“It’s cheaper for the consumer, it benefits the Australian farmers and it’s better for the environment because of the minimal packaging,” Ms Harry said.

“I thought it was too good to be true.”

‘People said farmers’ markets were a fad’

Farmers’ markets and other alternative food suppliers gained traction during COVID because they served as a “legitimate outing,” Jane Adams, the national spokesperson for the Australian Farmers’ Markets Association, said.

But they have now become a community stronghold known for offering cheaper and environmentally friendly options.

“Some store holders will offer price reductions on maybe hail damaged apples or something like that, so there may be food to be sold that isn’t absolutely perfect, so you can save money that way,” she said.

But the main point of difference from supermarkets, Ms Adams said, was the one-on-one relationship shoppers have with the people who grew, reared, or made their food.

“You can talk to them about what their costs of farming are, you can talk to them about their pricing.”

Ms Adams said farmers’ markets have come a long way since the first market began in 1999.

“At the very beginning, 25 years ago, people said to me that farmers’ markets were a fad,” she said.

“I can now put my hand on my heart and say no, actually, they have a permanent place in our food chain and they will be part of our food shopping lives going forward forever.”

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