Caldas da Rainha with its 50,000 or so residents is not a huge city. The city itself is known for its hospital and according to wikipedia, its pottery. In my family it is known as the city where my mother went to high school, and where every year my parents spend the summer.
In the heart of this ancient city, every morning, there is a fruit, vegetable, and pastry market. Virtually all the food one can buy at the market comes from this region of Portugal, with peaches, plums, pears, cherries and apples among the stars in the fruit department. At the same time, if you drive (and EVERYONE drives) in any direction from the center you will run into a massive big box store or supermarket. French owned, American owned, Portuguese owned, it becomes hard to keep track of which huge supermarket has just opened up where. Every year when I see a new one I think to myself “they couldn’t possibly need another one”, only to be confounded the following summer where another field of fruits or vegetables has been converted to a mega supermarket.
Despite the criticism that I could express, that so many have already expressed about the negative impact the big box stores have on communities, I confess I go to both. Perhaps for the convenience, or the choices, or maybe its the price, whatever the case, I divide my food shopping between the morning market of freshness, and the big supermarket of choices. As I do this I notice the type of customers in both: at the morning market an older crowd, many of whom know the venders and seem to have known them for ages, at the big supermarkets its the families, young families with one or two kids trailing behind the overfilled shopping carts.
In many different parts of the world, the phenomenon I’m describing has been a reality for far longer, and as many of you might be thinking – it is not the end of the world. You’re probably right. But as I watch this tiny city and its morning market where people walk from their home to acquire food freshly plucked from the fields around the municipality, and then I look at the big supermarket with its expansive parking lot and its giant aisles filled with stock, I see a difference. It is a difference not only in choice and price, it is a difference of culture. A culture that was rich and rewarding in ways that perhaps can’t be expressed in financial numbers.
The last thing I wonder is can we ever go back once the big box stores are everywhere, and the last of the elderly buying and selling fruit are gone. Some thought this trend would change with the dawn of the financial crisis, spurring a return of “buying local”. Yet here we sit, financial crisis in Portugal just as in much of the world, yet this summer they found a spot for yet another giant department store. I already forget what vegetables they used to grow on the field it is built on.