Closed Shops

Closed sign on shop A report today, by the Local Data Company, tells us that one in five shops in the North are now empty.

I’m not surprised –  3 of the 10 towns with the highest vacancy rates:

  • Burslem 29.4%
  • Hanley 27.7%
  • Hartlepool 27.3%
  • West Bromwich 27.1%
  • Droylsden 26.8%
  • Morecambe 26.8%
  • Stoke 26.6%
  • Bootle 26.4%
  • Walsall 26.2%
  • Stockport 25.9%

are part of Stoke-on-Trent. This city has a wonderful heritage, but the traditional employers (coal mining, pottery, steel and making tyres) have more or less diasapeared. As a result the city is the 16th most deprived local authority area in England, with 29.9% of Stoke-on-Trent’s children classified as living in poverty.

Looking through the worst ten towns list, most are in the north. The survey shows one in five shops in the North are now empty, compared with one in 10 in the South, and social deprivation is part of the problem.

What’s the answer?

With more consumers shopping on-line and the growth of supermarkets some of this is inevitable. However there are things that can be done. The village of Saltaire in Yorkshire had a large mill that closed down. But now Salts Mill is a thriving tourist attraction with a gallery of David Hockney’s pictures. Saltaire village is a World Heritage Site, and as a result Saltaire has lots of thriving local independent shops (see here).

Burslem (which is top of the closed shop list with almost one in three shops closed) needs a bit of love and promotion. It’s got a wonderful Victorian park, fine statues of Sir Henry Doulton and Josiah Wedgwood, the wonderful Wedgwood Institute and how many other towns can boast three town halls? Fans of Arnold Bennett will love the Bursley Trail.

A big problem is poorer education in poorer areas. People in poor areas tend to eat less well and shop in supermarkets rather than local independents because they are perceived as more expensive. Do our children know their vegetables – and how to cook them to make cheap nutritious meals? No wonder greengrocers are disappearing and we’re all geting fatter!

I hope that those who are in a position to influence things will take note, and not adopt a “Let them eat cake” attitude – we all know what happened to the rich in the French revolution!

Farmers’ markets, and artisan markets, can help draw people to an area. The town I live in (Nantwich) has regular street entertainment and festivals etc and the town appears to be flourishing. Thankfully people’s shopping habits are changing, and many are abandoning the big shop at out of town supermarkets – which sucks money out of the area.

Lastly the onus is on you to help support local shops. Sometimes the supermarkets may be a few pence cheaper (but they’re good at conning you) and do you want your high street to look like this (taken in Anfield):

Retail shops closed down

Go on a diet – and lose ££££s!


At this time of the year everyone seems to be on a diet! The word diet originally comes from the Greek word diaita, meaning “way of living”, but now many people seem to be in a permanent cycle of dieting and overeating!

There’s a long history of dieting.  One of the first dieticians was the English doctor George Cheyne who, in 1724 wrote An Essay of Health and Long Life. Then there was the Vinegar and Water Diet, made popular by Lord Byron in the 1820s.

However in Victorian times being obese was a way of showing you were financially successful, just think of all the corpulent characters like Mr Bumble in Dicken’s novels.  The picture below (from Wellcome Images) is an advert for the effectiveness of J. Morison’s pills (the aim of these dodgy medicines was to put on weight)

An obese man exhibiting a placard

Apparently according to this site, James Morrison (the quack doctor behind these pills) appealed to the general public because of the missionary like zeal in which he opposed “orthodox” medicine!

You’d think today, with all the information about nutrition, we’d know better.  However our waist bands are expanding:


and even kids are getting diseases like Type 2 diabetes (which traditionally affected just elderley people).

A whole industry has sprung up to give us quick fix pills and silly diets.  There’s that much confusion that people have forgotten the basics – the more you eat the more weight you’ll put on, and exercise helps you lose weight:

The relationship between calories, exercise and diet

The food industry haven’t helped, introducing sugar (and even worse fructose) into foods which don’t need it and over processing everything. Wholefoods help you to feel full, but most people don’t eat much.  Tasty vegetables, like turnips and swede, are out of fashion – but contain around 90% water (and there’s no calories in water).

So, as I sit down to a bowl of delicious homemade vegetable soup, I’m not worried about putting on pounds.  Remember a diet is for life – and not just after Christmas!

Happy 2015

Happy 2015

A new year is often a time when we decide to make changes. After 17 years, as a rural business consultant with ADAS, and just over 17 years as a lecturer at Reaseheath College, I’ve decided it’s time to have another change. So in April I plan to be working for the best person I know ;-), and will be self employed.   It will mean that I can concentrate on things that I really care about, like supporting small artisan food producers and sellers, or helping you to use your computer better. So if you need any help with things like

or you just need an extra pair of hands at a trade show (or when staff haven’t shown up), please get in touch.

I was very proud that last year my blog on Good Food Shops has now received over two million page views, from an amazing 194 different countries! My partner thought I’d run out of placees to visit, and stop doinging it after 3 months! Hopefully it’s helped you to find better food, and also helped the businesses it features to remain viable (and helped the economy by bringing in tourists).

As I will probably, like many, be on a reduced income, I’m also planning to do a new blog, or web site, on how you can still eat well, and healthily, with less money.

I’d like to wish you all good health and happiness in 2015, and hope to work with some of you later in the year.

Loyalty cards and the politics of a Christmas dinner

Loyalty cardsI’ve always been fascinated by consumer profiles.  When Tesco introduced the Clubcard, David Sainsbury initially rejected the idea of introducing a similar scheme. However when Sainsbury’s saw the adverse affect that the Clubcard had had on Sainsbury’s sales, they soon changed their minds.

The value that you the consumer get from “loyalty cards” (usually expressed as points – so you don’t realise how little it is) is nothing compared with the information you’re giving the retailers.

Clive Humby, from marketing firm Dunnhumby, helped Tesco to establish their Clubcard in 1994. Lord MacLaurin (who was then the chairmen of Tesco) famously said “What scares me about this is that you know more about my customers after three months than I know after 30 years”.

It’s very easy to see how profiling works. YouGov kindly let you search their information online:

Enter your favourite products, and it will tell you all sorts of things about other people who like that product:

The possible lifestyle of a Warburtons customer

So the shops can use this data to predict what sort of thing you may want, and more importantly what they can try and sell you to make more profits.

As it’s nearly Christmas, and just for a bit of fun, I thought it would be interesting to compare the politics (and possible gender) of people for different roasts:

Politics of Christmas Roasts

£64 million of wasted food at Christmas

graph showing Christmas Food Waste

I was horrified to read reports in the press this week about a Unilver poll which found that we waste £64 million of food on Christmas dinners!


  • 17.2 million Brussels sprouts
  • 11.9 million carrots
  • 11.3 million roast potatoes
  • 10.9 million parsnips
  • 9.8 million cups of gravy
  • 7.9 million slices of turkey
  • 7.9 million cups of stuffing
  • 7.5 million mince pies
  • 7.4 million slices of Christmas pudding
  • 7.1 million pigs in blankets

will end up in peoples waste bins!

How did we end up in such a state, where there’s around 925 million undernourished people in the world and we’re feeding our bins! As a small boy I’d loved to have done potato prints – but my mum told me food was for eating, and not to be wasted.

How times have changed, we even have have competitions to see how quickly people can stuff obscene amounts of food into their stomachs:

Picture of people eating ridiculously large burgers

We definitely need more education for our our children (and their parents). Portion control is a good way to teach kids maths. If we’re having 10 people for dinner and 50% of people like sprouts, and the sprout lovers eat 6 sprouts each, how many sprouts do we need?

Leftovers are some of my favourite meals. We will buy a sensibly sized turkey, the bones will make stock, and we will enjoy tukey and ham pie, turkey risotto and turkey curry etc.

Have a look at sites like Love Food Hate Waste for more inspiration. You’ll save money and feel better. Perhaps you could join me and donate some of your savings to Oxfam?

A nation of drug takers?

Prescription drugsIn 1776 Adam Smith (in The Wealth of Nations) described us as “a nation of shopkeepers”. With our high streets in decline, this is no longer true. If Adam Smith was alive today, perhaps he would call us a nation of drug takers?

Nearly half of us now take prescription drugs, with a cost of over 15 billion pounds! I can feel my GP’s blood pressure rising as he reads this. So before any more angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors are prescribed for hypertension, let me make some things clear. As an insulin dependant person with diabetes, the medical profession have saved my life. Without insulin, I would have been dead many years ago, and the plethora of other drugs I take help prevent me get complications like strokes and heart attacks. These days, with the help of Google (other search engines are available) everyone is a “medical expert” and I don’t have any medical qualifications. However there are some obvious facts, which many are chosing to ignore, about what could be done to reduce drug costs and make us healthier.

A nation of fatties?

What worries me is that our GPs now barely have time to treat symptoms, let alone find and treat the underlying causes. It’s not hard to find what’s wrong with the nation’s health. The Health Survey for England, published yesterday, show us that we’re getting fatter:

Weight of adults

It’s now almost become politically incorrect to suggest to someone that they should loose weight. Nearly half the population don’t do sufficient physical activity, and we’re eating more junk food . More than 27% of women consume more than 3 units and 37% of men conume more than 4 units of alcohol. The poorer you are, the more likely you are to be affected. There’s a very clear link (particularly with women) between waist circumference and social deprivation:

Waist circumference & social deprivation


Sadly it’s these people who are often the least mobile, and often have had a poorer education. So there’s no point in telling them about health vegetarian meals, made with ingredients from Waitrose, when their nearest shop is Home Bargains or Poundland.

Building up trouble for the future?

It’s even more worrying when you look at the data concerning childrens’ health. Eat up your greens? The number of children geting their five a day has fallen in the last 6 years and is now only 16%:

Children five a day

Over half our kids get less than three portios of fruit and veg a day, and 7% don’t get any! Last year 15% of girls and 16% of girls were classified as obese! In 2012 0nly 18% of our children did the recommended physical exercise (compared with 24% in 2008);

Who’s to blame?

I believe this problem has come about as a result of lack of education. Our politicians need educating, and also need to stop listening to some of the very effective lobbying from the food industry.They need to be aware that having more people educating us on exercise and diet could save prescription costs.

The parents of today’s children also need educating. Many of them rely on ready meals, and don’t now how to cook good simple meals with fresh ingredients which are cheap and nutritious.

The last person I want to blame is our GPs.

What can you do?

If you’ve got kids, take them on a hike! The endorphins you get as you climb a hill beat anything their local dealer can supply, and theyll lose weight and be less likely to be depressed. You’ll also feel better.

Read books like Joanna Blythman’s Bad Food Britain: How A Nation Ruined Its Appetite to find out how we got into this mess, and then read (by the same author) What to Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate, to find out what you can do. about it.

Visit (and preferably walk to) your local shops and find (if you’ve still got them) your local butcher and greengrocer. The butcher can tell you how to cook the cheaper (and tastier) cuts and your greengrocer will show you cheap seasonal foods (which will be riper and better tasting than the supermarkets).

Cook with your family – it’s far more fun than watching celebrity chefs on MasterBore. If you make a mistake have a laugh and learn from it. As a small child I loved visiting an aunty who’s cooking sometimes went wrong. When the sponge she’d baked turned out to be a bit runny in the middle she used a tin can to sut out the middle and then called it a polo cake!

Co-operate with your neighbours. If you can’t afford a sack of potatoes, share one. You’ll both save money and you don’t have to worry if they won’t keep as you’ll get through a smaller quantity twice as quickly.

Change food from being a chore to a source of fun – and feel better at the same time.

Healthy hospital food?

White toast


Last week I was admitted into hospital. I can’t fault the wonderful staff, all were professional and friendly at the same time. However I can’t believe some of the unhealthy foods we’re still being offered in hospitals.

I’ve had insulin dependant diabetes since 1980, so am very careful what I eat. The ideal diet for someone with that condition, is a good diet for most of us to follow. I aim to eat a balanced diet, that is low in fat, sugar and salt and contain a high level of fresh fruit and vegetables. In particular I aim to eat carbohydrate foods which have a low GI (Glycemic Index).

My first meal was breakfast. A lady asked me if I would like some toast. I asked if I could have some granary or wholemeal bread. Only white bread was available (pictured above). I wasn’t expecting hand crafted rolls from an artisan baker. But I do think that in hospital I should have at least been offered (and preferably encouraged) a more healthy alternative to this mas-produced white bread. A local bakery does a sliced oatmeal bread, which would have been better, and is not expensive.

I then found I could have had cereals, including Rice Krispies! I suppose I should have been pleased that we weren’t offered Ricicles (although that decision was probably made by the accountant and not the nutritionist).

I was offered sugar in all my drinks, despite having insulin dependent diabetic written above my bed.

I tried to choose my lunch carefully. I certainly didn’t choose this:

Healthcare orange juice

but one arrived anyway! Most of the people in my ward had diabetes and I noticed were drinking this. The only time I ever drink orange juice like this is when I’ve got hypoglycemia (low blood sugar). I find it’s almost as good as Lucozade (which is high in glucose syrup) for getting my blood sugars up.

The problem highly processed foods, like white bread and orange juice is that they make your blood sugars shoot up and then drop as quickly. This applies to everyone, not just people with diabetes.  That’s why people on unhealthy diets can get irritable when they get hungry (as their blood sugar drops). Most people in ward had a poor understanding of good nutrition, and (despite havingdiabetes) didn’t appear to have spoken to a nutritionist.

I realise the NHS has a very difficult job to do, and there are financial pressures.  Sadly our food industry often makes healthy eating dearer (white bread is usually the cheapest – which I don’t understand as the flour needs less processing).

In 1980, when I first had diabetes, I was surprised to be offered white bread, ice-cream and jelly (not low sugar) in hospital! I was hoping that things would have improved more than they have.

A hospital visit is a great opportunity to make people rethink their diet, make healthier choices and hopefully cut down the chances that they are readmitted. That would actually save the NHS money.

Manufacturing trouble?


Friends, who work in the food industry, think they do a superb job making food that’s both easy to serve and affordable. A book I read in the 70’s told me that the mission statement of Marks and Spencer was to subvert the class structure of Britain by making items available to the working classes that previously only the upper classes could afford! I can remember the excitement of having a Chicken Kiev for the first time! The example of Chicken Kiev is interesting. Most of us tend to think it’s a traditional dish, probably from the Ukraine. However I think it’s origins are French – and it was originally made with veal.

Posh restaurants changed it to chicken, because it was more expensive! Now you can buy two Chicken Kievs and get change from £1! How did this come about?

We can thank factory farmers for bringing down the price of chicken. I think most people would be appalled if they walked through a modern intensive poultry farm.

Florida chicken house

The few that allow cameras in are probably the better ones, in terms of animal welfare. Due to their intensive rearing, a typical supermarket chicken today contains more than twice the fat, and about a third less protein than 40 years ago.

How can the supermarkets sell food so cheaply?  A look at the ingredients gives us a clue. In the one I looked at there was less than 50% chicken! The ingredients listed were:

“Chopped and Shaped Chicken Breast Mix with added Water and Soya Protein (67%) [Chicken (48%), Water, WHEAT FIBRE (contains Gluten), Tapioca Starch, SOYA PROTEIN ISOLATE, Stabilisers (Triphosphates), Salt, White Pepper] , Garlic Butter (10%) [Unsalted Butter (from MILK), Garlic Powder, Sugar, Parsley, Citric Acid, Flavouring] , Rapeseed Oil , Fortified Wheat Flour and Wheat Flour Blend [Fortified Wheat Flour [WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten), Calcium Carbonate, Iron, Niacin (B3), Thiamin (B1)], WHEAT FLOUR (contains Gluten)] , Salt , Dextrose , WHEAT SEMOLINA (contains Gluten) , Maize Starch , WHEAT GLUTEN , WHEAT STARCH (contains Gluten)”.

The problem, as I see it, stems back to the industrial resolution, when workers left the land and moved into cities. Factories sprung up, producing cheap processed food.

There’s a long history of the food industry buying cheap ingredients, and then adding flavouring, sugar and salt to make it more appealing. I can recommend reading Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee – The Dark History of the Food Cheats by Bee Wilson.  I’ve used chickens as an example, but I could have used many others.  It’s frightening when you read the real reasons why prawn are now so cheap, and you’ll probably want to cut them out of your diet when you read more (see here for an example). Another good read is Felicity Lawrence’s Not On the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate. It’s shocking that, after the horse meat scandal, I’m struggling to find evidence of prosecutions etc.

As supply chains have lengthened, we’ve become more distanced from food producers. A small producer probably wouldn’t bother to substitute a cheaper ingredient to save a penny – but if you’re producing 100,000+ then saving a penny can add thousands to the bottom line.

One of the main problems is lack of education.  The eminent Professor John Webster told me in the 70’s the British public profess to have an interest in animal welfare, until they walk through the supermarket door and buy the cheapest food there is! Thirty years on and his message hasn’t changed (see here for example).

When I buy a chicken, I’m surprised how many meals I get out of it.  I buy a good one, and bulk it out with pulses and vegetables.  Nothing goes to waste, I always make a stock out of the carcass.

A recent report, by The Centre for Diet and Activity Research (CEDAR), looks at the growing price gap between more and less healthy foods.  According to the report, healthy foods in 2012 were three times more expensive per calorie than less healthy foods:

Price gap between more and less healthy foods

It’s no wonder obesity is increasing. When I look in shops like B & M and Home Bargains I see lots of cheap, but heavily processed foods. We’re lucky, where I live, to still have a greengrocer.  Many places no longer have one…

I welcome programmes like Jamie’s 15 minute meals, which show you that you can make tasty, reasonably priced meals in no time at all without resorting to packets and ready meals. I also commend Joanna Blythman’s What to Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate – follow her guidelines and you can eat better and help save the planet.

Why we’re getting fatter!

Today is traditionally a day on which we make resolutions.  With recent headlines like 10-year-old girl weighs 22 stone, I’m sure many will be planning to loose weight.  Why is obesity such a problem?

I’m very worried that even quite young people are now becoming obese.  A report by Public Health England, on Social and economic inequalities in diet and physical activity, shows us a link between social deprivation and obesity amongst children:

This report tell us that people living in the poorest neighbourhoods will, on average, die seven years earlier than people living in the wealthiest neighbourhoods!  The reasons seem to be poor education and bad diets.  The better off spend more on fresh fruit and vegetables, whereas the worst off spend more on processed foods.  At the same time, people with the least income in general do less physical activity.

It’s also worrying how many people are now relying on food banks in the UK.  According to the Trussell Trust 346,992 people received emergency food from food banks in 2012/13 – a 270% increase on the previous year.

Many food banks don’t accept fresh produce, as they can’t easily handle it.  I’m pleased to see the Trussell Trust is now trying to teach people how to cook when on a low budget, and provides advice on food budgeting, hygiene and nutrition. A report from the Institute for Optimum Nutrition, point out that people below the poverty line find it hard to afford healthy food, which they reckon can cost up to 50 per cent more than filling but nutritionally poor alternatives.

So who do I blame for the mess we’re currently in?  Friends who work in the food industry say they’re keen to provide nutritionally sound, affordable meals. However a Consumers Association report on breakfast cereals last year points out that 32 out of the 50 cereals they looked at were high in sugar. In only two cases was this due to the fruit they contained; for the rest it was added sugar.

It’s interesting how big food manufacturers have refused to use traffic light labeling. Maybe that’s why we worry about whether to buy full fat milk (which actually is skimmed to contain 3.6% fat) whilst eating crisps that have over 30% fat!

Teachers try and do their bit – but I don’t think it’s the first thing that OFSTED ask about.

Politicians will love to say they’re doing something about it. However they seem more interested in scoring political points off each other, rather than getting together and making sure something is done.

Many now trust supermarkets more than politicians. Did you watch Dispatches – Supermarket Secrets and Deceptions? It may change your mind about how you shop! The big 4 supermarkets now dominate the market:

According to data from Kantar Worldpanel, they have 75.2% of the market.  Bear in mind that the Co-op, Waitrose, Aldi and Lidl are in my “Others” category.  This means we now buy very little today from small independent shops.  I think this is why we now exist on foods from factory farms, and rely on artificial additives and preservatives to give taste and extend shelf life.  Good markets and greengrocers (traditionally the source for fresh and healthy fruit and vegetables) can be hard to find in many areas.

Our over-worked doctors haven’t got enough time to discuss healthy eating, so prescribe statins etc. to reduce cholesterol, and medications to reduce blood pressure. If you find all this depressing, well they’ve also got tablets to help you with that!

Thankfully organisations like the The Kindling Trust, with projects like Feeding Manchester, and the Plunkett Foundation, who led with Making Local Food Work, are making a difference.  I hope you’ll support initiatives like these.

I’ll finish this post with one of my favourite quotations from Margaret Mead. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Farewell 2013!

As it’s the season for reviews, I thought I’d do a quick review of some of this year’s highlights of doing this blog this year.

I’ve been to some great markets, and The Merchant of Hoghton’s Food Producers:

and Orton Farmers’ Market:

were both amazing examples of how could a Farmers’ market can be.

I’m glad we went on a walking holiday in the North East this year, otherwise I might not have discovered  Cross Lanes Organic Farm, near Barnard Castle

with its green living roof, tractor tyre shelves and great food!

If ever your that way, you must also try and visit Robineau Patisserie in Darlington:

I’d go on quite a detour to visit there again…

This year I’ve been to some great butchers, and some fantastic bakers – like Bramhall Bakery:

As bread and cheese go so well together I must also mention the amazing Courtyard Dairy in Settle:

Since my visit they’ve won Best New Cheese Retailer at the 2013 British Cheese Awards, and Best Cheese Counter at the BBC Good Food Show, and at the same event, Andy also won Cheesemonger of the Year – I’m sure he deserves it.

It’s been nice to see cider make a comeback, although my comments refer only to the proper stuff, and not the stuff marketing people promote which is made with imported apples and added water and god knows what!

So I was very pleased to visit the Three Counties Cider Shop in Ledbury  – a wonderful village for food lovers in Herefordshire.  Even better than cider is a good perry, and Tom Oliver:

(in my opinion) makes some of the best you’ll ever find.

In fact, if you want the perfect meal, what could be better than a proper crusty loaf of bread, some tasty cheese and a glass of good cider or perry?  If you buy them from these people you’ll be consuming natural products and not artificial additives.

A big thanks to all the producers, for allowing me to write about them, and to you for reading this blog.

Happy 2014!