Gardens over groceries: Meet the people who ditched supermarkets
As the cost-of-living crisis continues and food prices climb higher, most of us grit our teeth as we fill up our supermarket trollies. Some, though, have found another way.
Ellen Schindler walks around the back of her house and spies a surprise. "This is a Hawaiian raspberry," she says, plucking a red berry and handing it to me. It's smaller and contains more seeds than a summer berry, but there's a familiar tang to it. "It's not like a European raspberry, but it's winter, right?" she says, shrugging her shoulders.
It's tasty, but there's no time to congratulate her because Schindler, a home gardening expert based in Auckland, is off again. "I've got oranges up there, tangelos, mandarins, limes, red guava, yellow guava, another plum tree with eight or nine [varieties], an elderflower," she says, pointing and talking on the go. "Persimmons ... they can be up to $10 a kilo."
Standing in the middle of her homegrown forest, Schindler is surrounded by food. She's turned every inch of her Sandringham property into an edible garden – even the council-owned berm out front, where avocados and bananas dangle over the footpath and bunches of rhubarb and herbs are available for all to use.
Is she allowed to do that? "Of course not, but everyone loves it; people help themselves, no one's complained," she says.
Through her front gate awaits even more goodies. Schindler points to a macadamia tree giving her a steady supply of nuts, as well as kiwifruit, pears, nectarines, apricot, cherries, pawpaw and a blackberry bush. Two new coffee plants allow her to roast her own beans. It was a good cuppa, so if she can find room, she'll plant more.
Here in her food sanctuary, Schindler has almost every kind of fruit and vegetable a person could ever need – a bounty of supplies that gives her so much that she often hands out excess for free.
When did Shindler last go to the supermarket? She shrugs her shoulders. She can't remember.
‘It’s become about this big lie’
At dinner time, Schindler heads outside and forages to see what's in season. Radish and lettuce seeds scattered a few weeks ago before an overseas trip are ready for picking. Chickens give her a steady supply of eggs, and a buzzing beehive gives her honey.
Logs stacked under a shady tree offer bowls of shiitake mushrooms, so long as Schindler remembers to dunk them in water occasionally. "That suggests to them it's autumn ... and then they put out mushrooms," she says.
Schindler has little need for what supermarkets offer. Milk comes from friends who take turns travelling north to buy it farm fresh, and bread comes from a rescue operation she runs, delivering unsold products from cafes and bakeries to those in need.
The more self-sufficient she is, the less Schindler has to spend at her nearest supermarkets, the St Lukes Countdown, or Mt Albert's Pak'nSave, chains that are, according to an oft-quoted Commerce Commission market study, raking in more than $1 million in profits per day.
As food prices continue to climb – Stats NZ recorded a 12.5% increase year-on-year in June – Schindler is laughing all the way to the bank. Instead of wandering around the supermarket feeling angry at constant price rises, she spends her days outside, tending to her garden, preparing for the next season, and making sure there's always plenty for her and her partner to eat.
Pineapples and bananas should be ready to harvest in summer. Cherimoyas dangling off a tree aren't far off either. "Most of our food is not what it should be – to the benefit of us and our bodies," Schindler says, picking a sun-ripened rocoto chilli and handing it to me. "Everything you see here is in some form or shape productive."
On her overseas trip, she visited a supermarket in Germany and had the chance to compare prices to those back home. "It's unbelievable how unaffordable food is in New Zealand," she says. "It became about this big lie ... it's a big money-making machine."
How did it get like this?
A worrying sign of the times is at the top of your docket every time you have your groceries scanned at the supermarket.
"Stressed or overwhelmed? Call or text 1737 for free kōrero," say words printed in bold lettering on supermarket receipts. It’s an offer to access a free government-funded mental health service. That service is in high demand, supporting 42,500 people in the year to 30 June. (A spokesperson told Consumer they couldn’t say how many have called them directly from a supermarket as they don’t keep those kinds of records.)
Clearly, the ongoing cost-of-living crisis has turned a simple supermarket trip into a place where make-or-break decisions are made. Consumer NZ's sentiment tracker proves this, showing more than three out of every five respondents are concerned about the cost of purchasing food and groceries over the coming 12 months.
How did it get like this? A supermarket duopoly, accused of price gouging and squeezing suppliers, was investigated by the Commerce Commission and is being forced to comply with a mandatory code of conduct, along with other regulations that could allow more competitors to enter the market.
The hope is that this could make us more like Australia, where four major supermarket chains – Coles, Woolworths, Aldi and the Independent Grocers of Australia (IGA) – plus many smaller chains offer natural competition and deliver cheaper prices.
But that takes time. In a Consumer survey undertaken earlier this year, 90% of respondents admitted they were more mindful about where they were spending their money because of high prices at the till. "Whether you’re 18 or 80, right now the cost of living is highly likely to be your number one worry,” Consumer chief executive Jon Duffy said.
Anyone searching for supermarket savings advice will come across the same themes: sticking to budgets, avoiding shopping on an empty stomach, buying in bulk and having a meal planner organised before you go.
Others swear by comparison apps like Grocer.nz and FoodMe – tools that allow consumers to compare the cost of the same grocery items across multiple stores. Bulk discounts at stores like Costco and Gilmores are also becoming more popular.
But few suggest you can actively avoid going to the supermarket altogether. Yet some are offering options to try and make this work.
How food co-ops can help
On a drizzly Thursday morning, I joined Chrissy in an Avondale community hub where tables heaved with fresh produce. Around sunrise, vans delivered boxes of huge leeks, crisp apples, bananas, pineapples, avocados, lettuces and mushrooms, and giant bags of carrots and potatoes.
Chrissy was the first volunteer to arrive. She began loading all the produce onto tables, then writing the inventory on a whiteboard, dividing the produce depending on numbers and orders. "I texted everyone, 'It's here [early]’," says Chrissy. "They were like, 'What?!'"
Soon, she was joined by Jo, Michelle and Haidee, fellow volunteers who discarded their jackets, washed their hands and looked up at Chrissy's carefully drawn plans as they filled plastic tubs with the correct amounts of hand-selected produce.
The quartet oversee the Avondale outlet of Foodtogether, a co-op where anyone can order boxes of fresh fruit and vegetables valued between $20 and $40, depending on how much they want, then pick them up on a Thursday. Created by Anglican vicar Craig Dixon 30 years ago, it became an essential service in the wake of the Christchurch earthquakes to help distribute fresh produce to those in need. Now, the Foodtogether initiative has spread from Whangarei to Gore, including outlets in Taranaki, Rotorua and Cambridge.
In Avondale, volunteers distribute about 30 boxes a week this way. Before long, I'd washed my hands and was pitching in, sifting through mandarins, some of which were too damaged to be sent out, and hand-selecting items for the three different sized boxes. Chrissy showed me how to stack things so clean broccoli and lettuce weren't marred by dirty potatoes, and avocados and bananas weren’t bruised by bumping into apples or pears.
Soon, a conversation was underway about the value of the co-op's boxes compared to produce offered at supermarkets. Everyone there considered Foodtogether’s boxes to offer better value and fresher goods. “If we need something we haven’t got, I’ll get it [from a supermarket],” says Haidee about the rare times she visits her local. “It’s scary when you go in and see the quality of it. It’s not good – especially the fruit.”
At Avondale’s food co-op, it’s a different kind of vibe. Michelle says customers don’t believe they will get a box that’s as big as those shown on website promos. “They don't believe how much they're actually going to get until they show up,” she says. “They don't think it's going to be the same [as the photos]. It is mint.”
The co-op is part of a wave of community initiatives in Avondale to combat rising food prices. A free supermarket called Free Guys is behind the community space, and up to 100 people a day visit. “There is an undersupply of our food banks around Tamaki Makaurau … because rescue services are under increased demand,” says I Love Avondale executive director Jaclyn Bonnici.
Clearly, the need for fresh, cheap produce is higher than ever. “The supply chain of free and rescued food is all shot since Covid.”
A different kind of garden
Avondale’s community spirit is spreading. A few kilometres away, Rowan Cant is attempting something Schindler, Chrissy, Jo, Michelle and Haidee would likely approve of. Across 900 square metres of park space in Mt Roskill’s Molly Green Reserve, he’s growing a community food forest, one accessible and free for anyone who wants to get involved.
“We've already planted about 30 different trees,” he says. “We have a couple of peaches, about five feijoas; we've got grapefruit, lemons, limes, oranges. We've got pomegranates, figs, we've got three or four different apple trees, berries of different sorts. We've got persimmons, two different varieties of plums, bananas, cherimoya … inga beans. We've got silverbeet, rosemary, thyme, mint, strawberries.”
He's doing this because he’s sick of watching his neighbourhood’s gardens disappear. Like much of Auckland, housing’s being intensified, and backyards are disappearing in favour of townhouses. When his rental was sold, forcing him to move, he decided that instead of growing fruit and vegetables in tubs and buckets at home, he should persuade the council to let him do it in a park.
It took time, but three years later, anyone who wants to can come and help him. In return, they’ll receive a bundle of fresh food.
The idea, says Cant, is to allow neighbourhood children the chance to experience the kind of upbringing he had growing up on a farm. “We had far too many plums. We were giving them away to everyone we could,” he says. “I bought my first car selling plums for $1 a kilo. I want the neighbourhood kids to come to the park and for there to be a superabundance of plums that could feed the whole neighbourhood. ... They've all got all they want, and they’re loving it.”
Will more people give it a go?
Cant’s can-do attitude is something Schindler would like to see more of. In her Sandringham food paradise, she knows she’s lucky. She worked hard to pay off her mortgage, and her partner's job pays the bills, so she has the time and motivation to put all her energy into nurturing her garden. Seventeen years on, she’s reaping the rewards, spending her days in the garden, making sure everything's as it should be.
It may sound extreme to others, but Schindler struggles to understand why more don't do it. She estimates her average weekly shopping bill is $20 to $30 – and that’s only on cleaning products, toiletries and the occasional bottle of wine. Her garden has other benefits: when this year's heavy Auckland rain fell, her garden behaved differently to others on her street. Grass lawns filled up like swimming pools, but hers just adapted. "We soaked up all the rain," she says.
She shrugs her shoulders. Schindler’s home may not look House & Garden magazine ready, and it wouldn't be as desirable if she wanted to sell it. But, maybe, in time, as food prices continue to climb, others will follow suit and convert their excess land into edible plants and trees. She wonders what the tipping point might be. "It's your choice how you spend your time," she says. "I spend my time in my garden self-motivated and self-directed and I grow food that is way healthier."
She points proudly at her pineapples. Planted pre-Covid, it's taken two years, but her plant is finally bearing fruit, with several large spiky green pineapples jutting out at right angles. It might be months away from picking, but this summer, Schindler and her partner will enjoy their own homegrown pineapples for the first time. "The sheer pleasure of growing that ... that's the reward."
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