Image description: supermarket shelves with groceries.
There were three stages of my reaction to the news that the Cowley Road Tesco would be closing until the autumn: denial, panic, and somewhat successful attempts to adjust.
First came the denial. One quiet morning a newsletter came through my letterbox announcing the closure of said Tesco for 30 weeks. Now, for those of you who have never escaped the central Oxford bubble, and have thus far glided through life knowing of only the Magdalen Street Tesco and its temperamental escalators, then I pity your sheltered existence. Those of us who are turfed out into Cowley after first year tend to become well acquainted with Cowley Tesco; the alternative being a diet composed of the offerings of local legends Tsang’s and Za’atar Bakery. Admittedly some students over the years, in a vain attempt to develop a personality, have gloated about their preference for the Sainsbury’s or Co-op. These people were liars. Do not trust them. The rest of us spent our Friday nights in the frozen pizza and booze aisles of Tesco, living up the student experience. When the lockdown restrictions were in full effect, Tesco effectively became the central point of my social life.
Those of us who are turfed out into Cowley after first year tend to become well acquainted with Cowley Tesco; the alternative being a diet composed of the offerings of local legends Tsang’s and Za’atar Bakery.
Anyway, I had never seen any edition of this newsletter before during my entire time at this student house, so I initially paid it little heed. Then the board at the entrance to the store was erected. I had to finally admit that my days of near-24 hour access to aisle upon aisle of everything from Krispy Kreme doughnuts to Echo Falls to the occasional fruit and / or vegetable at a 2 minute walk from my house were numbered.
What do you do when the greatest source of joy and comfort in your life is taken away from you? Well, first came the panic buying, much to the chagrin of my more well-adjusted housemates. Every day of the week before the closure I went to Tesco and filled my basket with various items from the vegetarian freezer aisle, meticulously making sure that I had stocked up on every kind of veggie chicken nugget which was unavailable at the Sainsbury’s or central Tesco. I estimate that I have enough Quorn and Linda McCartney for 3-6 months, if not years, as a result of my careful planning.
Then I went even more back to basics, and decided to take up a bit of indoor container gardening. Now my living room’s window sills are full of little seedlings of all manner of vegetables and herbs in an attempt to make myself self-sufficient. The loss of Tesco has shown me that nothing can be taken for granted, and frankly if a zombie invasion a la Shaun of the Dead happened tomorrow I would have enough heads of lettuce and fledgling tomato plants to keep me going for a weekend or so at the very least.
Of course, I’m not seriously expecting to be able to survive off a couple of plants from my makeshift arboretum, but I have found that taking up gardening has helped with my mental health; watching a little plant grow every day as I feed and water it helps to not only add structure to my day but allows me to practice mindfulness whilst I do it. Furthermore, it has encouraged me to think more about what I eat, how it is sourced and the environmental impact of it all. That being said, I heartily acknowledge that when it comes to food, often the ability to think about the ethics of consumption when making the choice about what to put on my plate can be a real privilege.
However, all that lockdown-induced panicking aside, there is a serious point to be made about food accessibility for local communities, and how the priorities of these communities have been pushed away in favour of the lucrative student market; the main reason as to why Tesco is closing is so that student accommodation can be built above it, whilst vulnerable people will be left without a convenient place for them to do their shopping. Yes, the local council has encouraged people to take advantage of local shops in Cowley, but as much as I am in favour of supporting small local businesses, some people may not find this alternative as accessible.
However, all that lockdown-induced panicking aside, there is a serious point to be made about food accessibility for local communities, and how the priorities of these communities have been pushed away in favour of the lucrative student market
Whilst this situation is not as extreme, it did make me draw a connection to the issue of food deserts – communities where access to fresh fruit and vegetables at an affordable price is incredibly difficult. Most people may assume that this is a more prevalent issue over in the US, but they also exist here in the UK: in 2018 it was suggested that over a million people could be classed as living in one. There is the option of home delivery, but this comes with the additional requirement of internet access and a device to order from. Having easy access to a supermarket where there is fresh food is essential for any community to thrive and be healthy. Any local government which cares about its residents ought to recognise that.