The Savvy Shopper – The Real Meaning of Local

When someone refers to a pub as their “local”, no doubt we all imagine the same thing; a place where the atmosphere is homey, where the staff greet them by name, and where they probably know at least one other person in the room. Imagine the set from Cheers and that would be just about right.

We call these establishments our Local because it’s probably within walking distance from home – geographically it’s nearby.

When it comes to food, however, local is about more than geography. We are comfortable in our local pub because we’ve formed relationships – with the staff and owners, and with the other patrons, who are more than likely our neighbours. But even when we make an effort to buy local food, to support local producers, we don’t often get that same connection.

It’s hard – farmers are out in their fields, bakers manning their ovens, fishers on their boats. Building relationships with the people who make our food isn’t as easy as it’s made out to be. And I say that as someone who works in the industry and gets to spend time a lot more time with local food producers than the average consumer.

This discrepancy is easily taken advantage of – big food companies are hopping on the local bandwagon to try and sell us processed foods like chips or mayonnaise. By creating ad campaigns around the word “local”, and stretching the boundaries of what local means, both geographically and emotionally, they create a rosy glow about their products that they hope consumers will equate with knowing the name of the guy who sells them tomatoes at the farmers market.

These “locawhores” are counting on consumers to be aware of the buzzwords, but not their real meaning. Their logic seems to be that the products come from a place that is “local” to someone, and the source of ingredients can even span an entire country and still be called local.

But local is really about relationships. Which may take much time and effort to build. Over years of attending particular farmers markets I have come to know the farmers who vend there.

At the first market of the year, “my” apple guys greet me effusively, proffering samples as we talk about how their orchards fared over the winter. I greet my honey sellers with stories of how I ran out of my hoarded jars weeks before and had to resort to bland supermarket honey. I talk with the farmer who sells me berries about how our respective jam stashes are holding out.

At local events like the Harvest Wednesdays series at the Gladstone Hotel in Toronto, I spend the tasting events catching up with all the familiar faces I’ve met at markets and local food events over the years. How are things at Kernals peanut farm  – did the black skinned valencias do well? I visit with Ruth from Monforte Dairy and talk about her new horse and how the new building is coming along. I joyously greet Patricia from CIPM Farm and carry around a bag of her amazing red fife flour for most of the evening. Or I find Michael from Chocosol and sample the not-locally-grown but locally processed chocolate he sells; or Sherry from Chick-A-Biddy Acres, the CSA farm that supplies most of the produce for the event, to find out how her flock of chickens is doing.

Over the years, these folks have become more than just people I buy a product from – they have become friends. We are part of a community – we care about each other. We are banded together not just by the monetary transaction that takes place between us, but by a shared goal and shared values.

Do you think that potato chip company or the mayonnaise folks would hug me and ask me how I’m doing if they met me on the street?

Knowing where our food comes from isn’t just about pushing a pin into a map and drawing a circle around us. Eating locally, or supporting local businesses of any kind, on any level, is about relationships with the people who make and sell us the stuff we buy.

I’m not one of those 100-mile diehards. I love my coffee, and chocolate and oranges. I’ll even eat those amazing Indian mangoes that get flown over on British Airways jets every April when they come into season. But I go to the same store in Little India to buy them every year. The little store where the woman behind the cash doesn’t necessarily know my name, but recognizes my face, remembers me from my quarterly or so visits, and greets me with, “Ah, my red-haired lady, I was wondering when you’d be coming by to visit me for mangoes.”

Those mangoes come from thousands of miles away, but to me, the relationship is still one based on the premise of local. And that relationship, that happy greeting, that feeling of being a part of a community, is something the locawhore corporations will never ever achieve.