In the Supermarket

Over the weekend we were in Marysville for Emily’s project. We caught up with Tony Thompson, the terrific chair of the Marysville and Triangle Community Recovery Committee (amongst other things he does). Emily interviewed Tony for her project, and he was very generous of his time (having spent a day up at the Lake Mountain Snow Resort).  One of the things that Tony mentioned, almost in passing was that when the Marysville Supermarket reopened after 9 months, people literally cried. They had a supermarket again; it was part of the way to being a town again.

This got me thinking, on the trip home, and my wife Hanna and I chatted about it . Supermarkets,  and by  this I am thinking  the local variety of Foodworks or IGA or COOP(which are independently owned), are a real focal point for communities (rather than the larger concerns), as well as, of course, butchers, green grocers, bakeries.

So many non-monetary transactions take place in them.  People catch up, exchange news, gossip, information. Conversations can occur between friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers. A woman once asked me to read the label of a glass jar as she had left her glasses at home. Other might ask for advice on which brand of tinned tomatoes is better. Fleeting glances may bring hopes of romance, half filled baskets can be a clue to the inner workings of a household (You eat Marmite instead of Vegemite?). People on the deli (if you are lucky enough to have one) or the checkout can be a source of great community info, and a bit of a barometer of community feeling. The people on the checkout also provide a sense of the familiar, even if you don’t progress beyond the pleasantries. We have some characters in our local supermarket. It’s why i prefer to shop there, than drive to Coles or Woolworths. It’s social capital building in action. The notice board outside our other supermarket makes fascinating reading. People selling furniture, looking for a room, offering guitar lessons, tarot readings, tax returns, baysitting, pet walking, urging people to take action on a local issue. Again, it’s a little window onto a world of the local community.

Home deliveries, I think, are an indicator of how people are coping with daily life. Most of us take for granted going shopping and bring home the bags. If you are unable to bring the bags home, because of mobility or transport, then I feel this is an indicator that life is a bit more challenging. One of the questions I would ask supermarket owners (or chemists for that matter) who gets home delivery around here? I know my Mum managed to live without access to “services” because she arranged for food to be delivered and her medications. She would not have come up on a council “list” as being vulnerable. Yet her health condition was very tenuous.

I remember going to the Kinglake IGA after a large community planning meeting, and lurking long enough to hear the conversations at the checkout. “Yep, it was great” “Need to see what comes of it” “Nah, waste of time” I also recall when a plane crash claimed the lives of four teenagers from Gisborne, two of the kids worked at the local supermarket, and as such touched many people’s lives. Their deaths sent more than the usual shock waves through the town. Because of this, the local government was keen to put in place a recovery program.

The loss of a supermarket then has a tangible and intangible impact (goes back to my thinking on assessments, look beyond the obvious and ask, what does this mean?).  Supermarkets don’t readily come to mind as an essential service, in the way that power, gas, and water is (although food supply is considered an essential service). In disaster management, we talk about getting the power, phones, water back on, the roads open (and these are often a measure of progress in the early stages of a disaster).  It seems to take longer for supermarkets to re-open.

But the restoration of a supermarket raises some interesting questions and challenges. They are private businesses that rely upon people being around to buy stuff. Pretty simple. So when you have a destructive disaster like bushfires or cyclones or earthquakes, and the population moves away, temporarily or permanently, there is a dilemma. It becomes chicken and egg sometimes. People don’t want to return to an area if there aren’t the services that make it a community (Daniel Aldrich’s signals from civil society, you listen to people you trust to tell you whether it’s OK to come back. There is a great scene in Treme, where the Chief (one of the main characters calls to his friend I knew you’d never leave, and his friend calls back I knew you’d come back) . But on the other hand, businesses won’t return, understandably, if there isn’t a market for them.

Another challenge is donated goods (about now a number of experienced recovery managers have either broken into a sweat, run from the room screaming, or are dialling their employee assistance number). Well meaning, but ultimately misguided donations will affect local economies. In a report relating to food on the Queensland Floods, it was estimated that households took up to four months to restock their pantries. One of the reasons, it was surmised by the authors, was the availability of donated non-perishable foods.

What then, is the role of government, of the recovery system? Governments, as a rule, don’t run supermarkets, and have been running away from providing any services in the past two decades. I think this is a real challenge, and not one that I have any answers to, but I think it is an important question. Can supermarkets be opened on a smaller scale, so they don’t need to hold stock?,  Can they supported with rental or rate concessions loans to ensure that their cash flow is not compromised. Remember, the smaller ones, even the larger ones have a role to play in the community

They would, as any business, need to be included in the recovery planning discussions early on. One of the things that impressed me about the Alpine Shire when I met their CEO during the Alpine Bushfires in Bright to talk about medium and longer term recovery planning, was that he brought along the Economic Development Officer for the municipality, rather than the community services manager, who was still dealing with the relief efforts. Other municipalities didn’t have the same foresight. The Alpine Shire was well placed to articulate their challenges and what they needed when the Ministerial Taskforce swept into town.

So, like most things in recovery, it’s not straight forward, and these are the things that communities (and agencies) need to be thinking about when undertaking community resilience planning. I don’t think it figures highly yet on the radar, but hopefully will do soon. I know the food ndustry has done some very impressive planning to keep supply going during an influenza pandemic.

Back to the Marysville Foodworks. A well stocked little supermarket. We bought some stuff for our dinner before leaving town. It might not keep someone in a job, but might just.

An ode to the supermarket, from the fabulous  soundtrack of suburbia, Jack Howard’s Shadowlands

4 thoughts on “In the Supermarket

  1. It’s interesting too, that our Recovery Manager used to say that you could spot the people who are connected in the community by how long it takes them to get around the supermarket … Exactly the same theory!


  2. True! The other thing, thinking tangentially about supermarkets is don’t you hate it when they rearrange the aisles. The mental map is wiped. A kind of metaphor for a changed landscape/cityscape


  3. Tony is right! The Marysville IGA (re)opened on December 5, 2009 almost 10 months after the fires (I remember the specific date for some reason). There were crowds, there were balloons, there were tears. There was a practical element to it (finally, people could get loo paper and milk without a long return trip) but there was also a big physical stamp in the ground that said, ‘this town is coming back’. Chicken and egg like.

    And you are right, it was very confronting for government to have to solve the dilemma of no supermarket, no suitable commercial spaces, and no clarity on the role of who should subsidise or support what happens in this commercial arena.

    In a recent project on recovery planning for a local government area, we (I’m a consultant these days) asked stakeholders like the local supermarket owner about their plans in case of disaster. And not their ‘on the day’ plans, but the realistic scenario of them hanging on or coming back in case of major impact. It was revealing and challenging as it opened up a whole heap of great conversations about the complexity of community resilience and recovery planning.


  4. i think this is a whole new, untapped area in disaster resilience. Too often we think that its the responsibility of local government or the CFA/SES to deliver “something” which only about 20% of the population on average take any notice. Yet we see so many players emerge after disaster. The challenge for us is to unlock those keys, and get people to see what role they might play in resilience and recovery.

    I like the way you use the word conversations, this is so important, and implies a two way street, over a period of time


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s