Everyone has to eat.
When it comes to buying food, two prominent choices emerge: the supermarket, and the local market or “farmer’s market.” Both are associated with different modes of production, distribution, and cultural values; both have their own benefits and drawbacks. Historically, the local market is a prominent feature of French social life. With the advent of a market economy, it began as a place of local commerce and the driving force of the local economy; as France grew into its prestigious culinary identity the market became a place for small-scale artisanal producers to showcase their high-quality goods in a reaffirmation of regional identity. While markets still exist in France, and are an important feature of local communities, the “supermarket chain” is becoming a real threat to local and regional products, as well as the small-scale producers behind them.
The modern supermarket chain is a fixture of the industrial food industry and the global economy. The grocery store is one of the most pertinent physical representations of the global market: a wide variety of products from all over the world, available in one single place. The supermarket’s transformation since the mid-20th century is tied directly to globalization, industrialization, and the overwhelming influence of global capitalism. France, as we have seen earlier in discussions of the emergence of fast food, is not immune to globalization. The supermarket arrived as a direct American import in 1957, and by 1973 there were 2,068 supermarkets (independent and chain) in France. Mirroring American industrialization, the reorganization of societies into urban areas made supermarkets a viable and useful option for purchasing food (Langeard & Peterson et al 2002). Today there are more than 20 French supermarket chains currently operating in France and even internationally, the most prominent being Carrefour and Casino Group chains.
The extremely successful business model of chain supermarkets relies on consistency, efficiency, convenience, availability, and reduced cost. A company buys products from different large-scale producers all over the world, and places them in their store for consumers to choose between. Even more than that, many supermarket chains have their own “brand” of goods, covering seemingly every item one can buy – from toilet paper to chicken liver. Supermarkets now strive to be recognized as not just purveyors but producers, even if they are only paying others to produce goods with their name on them. The implication here is a separation of supply and distribution, one of the key tenets in globalization and the reorganization of the global supply chain. So we know what we’re gaining here – the convenience of having a wide variety of options between food products, availability of nearly all food we need in one place, and reduced cost. But what are we losing?
Specifically for France, supermarkets represent a loss of regional producers who cannot keep up with industrialized, mass-producing brands. Even more than that, there is a severance of significant community-building relationships; instead of cultivating a knowledge base and relationship between producer and consumer, people are now only interacting with the labels and product packaging created by advertising agencies. The “idea” of France and French cuisine has been quantified, defined, and reduced to a label stuck on the package of industrially-produced cheese in an attempt to draw consumers in with the idea of authentic French history. In reality, the authenticity of French history and historic cuisine experiences was the market – the interaction and connections between region, product, producer, and consumer. With products that come from all over the world, consumers gain options and exposure to different food cultures and experiences; this is not a bad thing. But when supermarkets supporting large-scale producers disenfranchise local producers, regional French specialties begin to disappear, and regional French producers go out of work or conform to the industrial model. In this, a part of French culinary history is lost.
But there is still hope. Local markets have seen a resurgence in France in the past decade; consumers driven by quality and food safety concerns, fear of homogenization, renewed interest in regional cuisines, and local food as a performance of a bourgeoisie identity and the market as an authentic food experience are all contributing factors to the return of local market culture (Vecchio 2009).
Renting, Henk, Terry K. Marsden, and Joe Banks. “Understanding alternative food networks: exploring the role of short food supply chains in rural development.” Environment and planning A 35.3 (2003): 393-412.
Langeard, Eric, and Robert A. Peterson. “Diffusion of Large-Scale Food Retailing in France.” Retailing: Critical Concepts. By A. M. Findlay and Leigh Sparks. London: Routledge, 2002. N. pag. Print.
Vecchio, Riccardo. “European and United States farmers’ markets: Similarities, differences and potential developments.” presentation at the 113th EAAE Seminar “A resilient European food industry and food chain in a challenging world”, Chania, Crete. Vol. 346. 2009.