Wednesday, March 7, 2012

In praise of buying locally, part 1

Several years ago, we made a conscious decision to take a more active role in the purchase of the food we eat. Huh? I know that sounds sort of silly, but that’s the way we thought about it. Let me explain.

In North America most certainly, but also on a globally spreading basis, people are buying all their food in large food stores, generally called supermarkets. The reasons are multiple: one-stop/buy-all-your-needs shopping, spending less of our valuable time, and costing less money. I don’t think I would find much disagreement if I said that the last reason was the most important for most people. Depending on where you live, getting your food at supermarkets might be the only choice you have. The Walmarts of this world are able to sweep away all the smaller operators (and even some big ones) in their path. That’s a frightening thing, considering their retail ethic.

But what if you care about where your food comes from, the quality of it, what was done to it, how much nourishment you’re actually getting from it? (We won’t even go into the taste of it at this point in the discussion.) Products sold in supermarkets have to be labelled as to place of origin and ingredients, but that really doesn’t begin to tell you the whole story. You won’t find out the things you need to know if you care about what you’re putting in your body.

So here’s where our more active role in finding out this information comes into play. Ever try to ask a question of the kid putting out the produce at your local supermarket? More than likely you’ll get a, “Dunno.” The produce manager will not do much better either. They won’t know when it was picked, where it came from past the country of origin, even if you’re asking about – and paying more for – organic. And generally, the quality of the produce owes a lot of its (non)flavor to the fact that it has to be shipped a long way and has to stay looking good for as long as possible. Taste and nutritional value are far down in this equation.

Stop at the butcher counter and ask where their pork or beef or chicken come from. They won’t be able to tell you because they get it from their company’s central warehouse, and that warehouse gets it from multiple producers. Don’t even ask about ground beef…

So what are we to do? We hear scary things about food recalls all the time. People have died from eating tainted food. Now think back 20 years. How many recalls do you remember from that time? How about 40 years ago (for those old enough)? I’m sure it happened, but I’d be willing to put money down that it didn’t happen as often. Why?

I’ll bet you already know the answer: factory or large-scale farming. For example, when you’re raising 20,000 hogs a year, you can hardly know what’s going on with your individual animals. With the price of pork being pretty well dictated by the large chain store buyers, producers have to do things as cheaply and quickly as possible. The profit margin is very low and the costs of operations very high.

Bad things happen in this sort of environment, be it with beef, pork, chicken. eggs, carrots, spinach or pretty well anything. You also have to rely on everyone doing things the right way, not cutting too many corners, and not making mistakes.

So that’s why we wanted to get out of the “supermarket rat race”.

Living in Toronto, it didn’t take much effort to make the switch because there’s the St. Lawrence Market to begin with, but not all the vendors there do things all that much differently than the supermarket chains. We’ve had to take it much further than that as a result.

Next post: Digging a little deeper


Vicki Delany said...

Come on out to Prince Edward County. I buy all my vegetables direct from the farm in summer and fall. I buy a good portion of the pork and chicken I eat as well as eggs from the farmer.

Rick Blechta said...

Lucky you!

That's sort of where this series is headed. The bottom line for us is that we want to get to know the people who are growing our food – and how they're doing it. It's been a very enjoyable experience, and enlightening, too.

Thanks for commenting!