Roots to fruits: The demise of the greengrocer

In a new regular column, author of The Ethical Carnivore Louise Gray explores her roots in the greengrocer trade and the stories behind some of the most popular fruit and veg.

Recently, I wrote a piece about my great-grandfather Willie Rankin’s chain of greengrocer shops, Rankins’ of Edinburgh. I expected a few responses from fruit and veg ‘nerds’ into historic trade routes and vegetable breeding (you know who you are). What I did not expect was an outpouring of nostalgia for the traditional greengrocer.

Strangers and quite a few long-lost cousins got in touch to share their memories of Rankins’. The greengrocer was often a childhood memory and the descriptions have all the colour and excitement of a child’s imagination: the huge cauldron of beetroot bubbling at the back of a store, the smell of strawberries arriving by train from Hampshire in June, the excitement of bananas ‘just flown in from Jamaica’ or trying new ‘avocado pears’ from South Africa.

Rankins’ of Edinburgh, in 1968.

There were 20 branches of Rankins’ throughout the city and many remembered working as shop boys and girls after school in their smart green aprons. Customers would come in every two days to stock up on fresh vegetables and seasonal fruit, rather than bulk buy, and always returned boxes. There was no plastic.

Then there were the characters: my great grandfather chain-smoking in a bowler hat, my Great Aunt May stamping ration books and making sure no one got an extra banana and the staff who sent flowers to a sick little girl on the street every day. 

It turned out that Rankins’ was not just a greengrocer for a lot of people, it was a daily ritual, an opportunity to connect to the seasons of Britain and even the rest of the world, a place to catch up on gossip and see a friendly face. As the responses to the blog show, many people miss that experience. Like most greengrocers, Rankins’ went out of business in the 1980s unable to compete with out-of-town supermarkets.

The loss of the greengrocer not only killed the high street, it changed the way we shop and eat. Yes, we eat more fruit but the big increase is in bananas while local varieties of apples are no longer commonly available. We actually eat fewer fresh vegetables, relying more on processed veg. Most importantly perhaps we have lost connection to our food. Now fruit and vegetables are available all year round, it is difficult to keep track of what is actually in season. We don’t even have a human being to ask at the check-out, never mind a friendly face.

Louise Gray
Produce heritage: Louise will explore the supply chains for fruit and vegetables. 

As the great granddaughter of a greengrocer, I feel I should be able to tell my own daughter where her food is from. For this new column series for Wicked Leeks, I want to put on my smart green apron and tell the stories behind our fruits and vegetables.

That is not always going to be pretty. Bananas are picked by poorly paid workers, lettuces are doused in chemicals and our latest craze, avocados, is draining poorer countries of water. But there is hope. Workers are demanding fair pay, the introduction of predatory insects in glass houses is reducing the use of pesticides and drip irrigation techniques are ensuring avocados could be farmed sustainably.

In these challenging times, when it seems there is little we can do about climate change, what we eat is one of the few ways to reduce our individual impact on the planet. Ultimately it is a way to create a better world for my little girl, the great-great granddaughter of a greengrocer, to grow up in.

I’d love to know your memories of visiting a traditional greengrocer and what you would like to know about the fruit and vegetables we eat today in the comments below.


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  1. Hello Louise! I’ve been reading a lot about our food system over the past few months. What a tangled mess! I’m curious to know if you have any ideas on how we would bring about a system whereby we encouraged farmers to grow more fruit and veg in this country and then paid them appropriately for it without it becoming too expensive for low income families? It seems to me that the value placed on all food in the UK is so warped that the prices have to rise at some point but as inequality also increases and food poverty becomes far too common we are left in a catch 22 scenario. I realise that’s not specifically about green grocers but the problem very much started with the decline of food shops like Rankins.

    1. Hi Mark! It is such a tangled mess, sometimes I’m scared to even start. But even though there are few clear answers, there is hope… One of the good things about Brexit (the only one?!) is it gives us the opportunity to reform our farming system. Subsidies are being shifted away from monoculture to farming that benefits the environment. Veg growers never got subsidies but now there is hope they will get support for farming vegetables in a sustainable way such as agro-forestry and reducing chemical use. If more veg can be grown locally and affordably then there is the hope it will be available to families across the income spectrum. An idea might be for more schools and hospitals to buy the veg?! This recent report by the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission has more ideas I guess the other side of the coin is that consumers have got to want to eat the veg farmers grow. I think a lot of that has got to be driven by eating more seasonally – and adventurously?! I agree this problem started with the decline of the greengrocer. My great grandfather would buy rhubarb and swedes at this time of year from my other great grandfather on my father’s side, Tommy Dale, at the Edinburgh ‘’green market’. Of course supermarkets rely on huge suppliers further afield. I’m not sure they will change. But if we can start as consumers to source local veg via farmers markets and veg boxes that could help. I know you are an excellent chef. Do you have a seasonal veg to inspire me and a way to cook it?? Thanks

  2. I have felt for a very long time that the pricing of food is insanely topsy-turvy. It shouldn’t be a cheap option to eat junk and an expensive one to eat healthy food. Eating junk over a long period of time makes people ill, they then need treatment and that puts a huge stress on the country’s finances. People who choose to look after their health have to pick up the bill along with everybody else which is unjust. So, how about this for an idea – put taxes on junk food so that it is no longer a cheap option. People will always have a choice whether or not they want to eat it. Use the taxes to help farmers grow more of our own food in this country in an organic and sustainable way. That should bring prices of healthy food down. If people want to make themselves unhealthy then they have the choice to do so, but at a cost. Lower income families should not be forced to buy junk food just because that is all they can afford and people who can’t be bothered to look after their health (which affects the health of the country as a whole), may then start to re-think their lifestyle choices. I’m going to use that word again – it’s insane!

    1. It doesn’t make sense, does it? I think education and access are key. I was speaking to someone from the Poverty Truth Commission the other day. She was desperate one day to eat a cabbage. Of course that is not expensive but her local outdoor market had closed, Iceland and farm foods only had frozen and she couldn’t afford the tube return fare to Asda. She misses a local greengrocer! So it’s about more than cost. I have not looked into a tax on junk food. I notice the threat of a sugar tax has forced fizzy drinks to reduce sugar but they are still bad for you! I think it is about educating children about how to eat well, so they know how to withstand temptation from these foods and look after themselves.

  3. We owned a greengrocers in the 80s. We sold all grade 1 produce and bought locally grown veg from small growers. It was extremely hard work. Late in the evening we often worked making the shop look perfect for the next day but we reaped the rewards with queues at weekends. I can understand why there are so few greengrocers now. Supermarkets are the main culprit. But weight is a big factor. If you’re elderly or if you have small children it’s so difficult to carry heavy fruit and veg. I think home delivery is really the way forward.

    1. Wow Ollianna that sounds like hard work. I agree with you, there will be a few greengrocers but we are all used to doing big weekly shops now and it is so convenient to drive. Veg boxes do seem a really good option as it enables you to tap into local growers. There are two local to me, East Coast Organics and Phantassie. I have tried both and really enjoy the seasonal veg but I often struggle with getting the quantities right, so end up cancelling if I feel I am wasting anything. You have reminded me I need to sign up again and try to meal plan as soon as I get the box! Referring to the above comments, it can seem expensive compared to a big supermarket shop but if you plan, I think you can get a lot more out of the meals. I ‘d love to see veg box schemes taking off more, especially if they use electric vehicles to deliver!

  4. Hello Louise, great column.
    I live in Ilkley, a prosperous semi-commuter town in Yorkshire, population 15,000. We have 3 independent butchers but the last greengrocer closed 3 years ago.
    I am a trustee of Climate Action Ilkley and you’ll see on the website we started a Food Choices campaign last autumn. Our first aim was to raise awareness of veg and fruit C footprint and particularly the huge footprint of air-freighted produce. Avoiding this should be one of the easiest wins for the climate but of course mode of transport does not appear on the label. We can reliably say that Kenyan green beans and Peruvian asparagus come by air and tomatoes from Spain by truck. But what about tomatoes from just over the Gibraltar straights in Morocco?
    Another big issue is whether veg is grown with supplementary heat – this can result in a C footprint comparable to air-freight. This is not marked on the label either.
    You’d be doing a massive favour to consumers if you could shed light on these issues and enable us to make informed choices.

    1. I am going to try! I think the work Climate Action is doing is great because, like you said, reducing food miles is a good way of reducing the carbon footprint of your food. You can look for the air freight stickers to give you an idea of produce that is flown across the world which is a good indicator of carbon footprint and educate about foods that are likely to be flown here at certain times of year, like green beans or asparagus. But it is complicated… I have been talking to Farm Africa, a charity that helps communities beat poverty, and they are supporting a number of young farmers in Kenya to grow for export. Personally I think since climate change is going to affect everyone they need to move away from air freight too. But the social factor is worth considering and one I am still working on. Re: tomatoes. Yes heated greenhouse can be more carbon intensive but they use far less pesticides than outdoor since pests can be controlled by biocontrol (other insects). Also they can use renewable energy. I’d like to see more British tomatoes and salads grown here at least April’ to October. Tomatoes from Morocco are often to fill the gap in Dec and Jan and I think taste horrible. Also heard worrying reports of labour practices. I think a lot of this comes down to education. Yes, you can eat British tomatoes for six months of the year but in winter they are going to be tasteless and high carbon – even from Europe. By all means buy the occasional bag of green beans from Kenya occasionally but understand it had a carbon footprint even if it is supporting a farmer. I have found that simple carbon footprint calculations only get you so far. What about the carbon in freezing green beans if they are British grown? So I am trying to look at a number of factors and give the reader positive stories where they can make a choice ie buy British tomatoes! As I find people switch off if I cannot suggest positive actions. Food miles is so complicated but then again what could be more satisfying than connection to your local food sources.? Surely that’s win-win.?Will keep you posted!

    2. Thanks Louise for replying in detail.. Just to check information sources:

      We mainly rely on ‘How Bad are Bananas: the C footprint of Everything’ by Mike Berners-Lee. His calculations attempt to take into account freezing , storage etc.
      We also use ‘Food & Climate Change without the hot air’ by Sarah Bridle. on p133 she calculates that frozen veg has double the footprint of fresh/chilled, but air freight has 8 times.

      We have Tesco, Booths, M&S and Coop. I have not seen a single air-freight sticker. I’d be interested to know who uses them.

      Yes absolutely social issues are important and there is a great need for more accreditation of fair treatment of workers, including in Spain. I’d be interested to know the situation in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa – I’d been assuming a lot of the fresh veg we get is produced by large companies, not small farmers. I’ve not seen any of it with a FairTrade mark.

      We’d be interested in working with you and Wicked Leeks on all this!

    3. If you’re interested in the Kenyan supply chain, this paper is an excellent insight. It is mind blowing how ‘just in time’ supply chains work, the catastrophic effects for emissions and how the whims of large Uk supermarkets effect small scale producers in Kenya.

      Barrett, H. R., Ilbery, B. W., Brown, A. W. and Binns, T. (1999) ‘Globalization and the Changing Networks of Food Supply: The Importation of Fresh Horticultural Produce from Kenya into the UK’, Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 24(2), pp. 159-174.

  5. My first job was working on a van delivering veg round the houses. Again we were a “community resource” offering the best people could afford. And in those days most veg was organic without having a label. Small is better in the case of veg, small, organic, community farms. Unlike the first article in the magazine (GM under a different name)…..

    1. So basically you worked for a veg box scheme? I think it does seem like a good solution for a lot of people. Personally I am not hung up on organic. I think ALL farming should be sustainable – ideally regenerative- and we should be looking at any method that works.

    2. .,, when I say any method I’m more referring to crops that can be grown with minimum water and chemicals, rather than purely organic. I think there is so much we can do without GM, I don’t really see the point. Certainly first generation didn’t do the technology any favours in terms so I’m still very cautious.

    3. Hi Louise, my first job was way back in about 1967/8; I presume before GM had a name and probably a place in farming. We loaded up the (Bedford) van and went round houses, most people would come out of their houses (like ice-cream van customers) and have a chat while waiting to be served. And of course some (older) people only saw us from one day to the next…….

    4. I think that is returning now with veg boxes, only we don’t expect to chat to the delivery man, which is a shame…

    5. Hi Louise, my first job was way back in about 1967/8; I presume before GM had a name and probably a place in farming. We loaded up the (Bedford) van and went round houses, most people would come out of their houses (like ice-cream van customers) and have a chat while waiting to be served. And of course some (older) people only saw us from one day to the next…….

  6. Hi
    I remember a greengrocers on Burton Road in West Didsbury, Manchester in the early 1970’s. I was a student at Hollings College and had very little money for food. I didn’t realise I was a vegetarian at the time but a huge bagful of vegetables cost well under a pound and that is what kept me going.

    What strikes me now was how ‘mucky’ the shop, the greengrocer and his wife and son were. Vegetables were straight out of the soil, not cleaned up and disnfected within an inch of their lives as they are today. My immune system is strong and healthy – I now grow much of my own vegetables on an allotment and am often finding a bit of grit in my meals!! I am sure that eating a ‘peck of dirt’ as the saying goes, has contributed immensley to my good health (I am now in my late 60’s)
    lin x

    1. I do agree with you! Muddy carrots taste better, but is is easier for kitchen cleaning if they come pre-washed?! When I spoke to people who worked at Rankins’ they remembered sweeping all the mud off the floor from the vegetable bins at the back, especially the root vegetables. I have heard that supermarkets put soil on potatoes to make them look authentic!

  7. Hi Louise,
    Can you do a piece on ‘taste’ – where has it gone?
    I was brought up on Cumbrian farm and my mother ran the garden as a market garden, complete with a weekend market stall, and kerbside honesty box. It was organic before organic was a thing.
    Everything she grew from tomatoes to lettuce had lots of flavour. Today they taste only of water.
    Is this the price we have to pay for outsourcing our food production to the supermarket suppliers?


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