A journey of a thousand miles starts with your corner shop

My local corner-shop is under new management. It’s been there, 365 days a year, sunrise to 10 pm, for all the 21 years I’ve lived here. It has solved all my grocery emergencies… like my daughter’s sudden urges to bake cakes at 9pm and we’re out of eggs, or when a friend pops in for a cup tea and wrinkles his nose at the prospect of my soya milk, or when we’re sitting down to Christmas dinner with the extended family and I realise I’ve forgotten to buy the essential ingredient for brandy butter…

The new owners are eager to please. They’ve spruced the place up and stacked the shelves high with everything they think we’re ever likely to need. They are crestfallen if they don’t have something you want, and rush off to make a note to buy it next time.

There is one small space on those shelves, though. And I’ve got my eye on it.

Perhaps, as well as the usual cheap basic groceries, newspapers, sweets and booze, it could also sell Just Change tea – grown by indigenous people (who call themselves adivasis) in South India and traded community-to-community via volunteers like me. And honey made by a friend in the next street. And vegetables and flowers grown on the local allotments…

The new owner is skeptical, but doesn’t rule out the idea completely. His family has experience of running corner shops in various parts of Oxford from the multicultural, multi-social (to coin a phrase) Cowley Road to Blackbird Leys where, he said, “most people are on benefits”. But here, he has noticed, there is a mix of “professional people” who might be interested in fair trade tea and home-made honey, and “simple people” (his words) who just want the basics at the cheapest possible price.

But why should paying producers a fair price for their goods be something only professional people can afford to do? Why shouldn’t “simple people”, people on lower incomes here be able to pay “simple people” in other countries a reasonable price for producing their food?

That’s what Bomman, a member of the adivasi group that produces Just Change tea, felt when he saw his tea for sale in a German fair trade shop. The price was way beyond the means of ordinary working people. Bomman said, “This isn’t fair. People who want to buy our tea are our friends; they should be paying less, not more”. So Just Change developed a pricing policy based on what people could afford – above a sustainable minimum set by the producers themselves.

When Just Change producers met members of Marsh Farm Outreach (MFO), a community group on a Luton housing estate, they found they had much in common; the struggle to earn a living, to own their own homes… and their love of tea. MFO now distributes Just Change tea on the estate and beyond. They do it as an act of solidarity with the adivasis and to supplement both their own and the adivasis’ incomes.

So, with this precedent to inspire me, my new mission is to persuade my new neighbour to stock fairly traded and locally produced groceries. Obviously he can only do this if all his customers—professional and “simple”—feel not only that it’s important to pay a fair price for their food, but also that it’s affordable.

Then maybe one day, we’ll all have a sense of solidarity with our fellow workers whether they are on the local allotment or they’re a thousand miles away in a South Indian tea garden.

Wish me luck. And watch this space…

Photo: The Corner Shop – Coronation Street set (Elaine Champion) / CC BY-SA 2.0
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