Why Local Needs to Go Mass Market

I bought asparagus at the supermarket today.

I know. Step aside so the vigilante hordes of locavores can get past in order to more easily place my head on a pike.

It *was* local if that makes any difference.

I know. I should still be supporting the farmers at farmers’ markets. More of the money goes directly to the farmers than if I buy local produce at Price Chopper.

But you know what? This maybe needs to stop. See, when the produce manager pulled that bunch of asparagus out of the box, he had a little gleam in his eye. He knew it was good stuff. Perfectly-sized, tight heads, bright green… We looked down at the asparagus, then back up at each other. “Heh?” he said, smiling. “Gimme it,” was my reply.

Here’s my theory on this… yes, more money goes directly to the farmer if we buy our produce directly from the farmer. But despite the fact that Toronto’s got farmers’ markets every day of the week, and piles of CSAs,they’re not always convenient to get to. Those of us “in the bubble” make the effort to get there. But we’re the minority. Everyone else is all about the one-stop-shopping. So if we want more people to eat locally-grown food, we have to accept that some of them are going to do it at the supermarket.

The problem with this is that supermarkets are ginormous corporations that work on economy of scale. One of the arguments given by the chains for not carrying more local strawberries is that they have chain-wide contracts with California growers that they’re not able to ditch during the small window when local berries come into season. And since they can’t risk losing these contracts (because even though they’re gross, consumers have become accustomed to having strawberries in January), they have to go with the bigger supplier.

Where am I going with this? Well, as much as I believe in supporting local farmers, I’m also of the opinion that the only way to spread the word about local produce is to make it more available to the average consumer. Which means it has to be in the supermarkets. Farmers may make less per unit, but they’re also saving the time and effort and related cost of travelling to market in the first place.

More importantly, buying local produce (or organic, etc) in a supermarket sends a message. Every sku scanned is tabulated. Price Chopper knows exactly how many units of local asparagus they’re selling. If it doesn’t sell well (because we’re all out buying it at markets) then they’ll stop carrying it. So at the very least, we need to make sure that these stores see an interest in local products and continue to carry them so that other shoppers (who don’t normally shop at farmers markets) will see those products and have the opportunity to buy them.

Let’s look at eggs… I prefer to buy my eggs directly from the farmer at the market. They’re free-range and organic, and they taste better than regular eggs. But I alternate buying these eggs with the free-run organic eggs from the supermarket. The section for the free-run eggs is tiny – one row, maybe a dozen cartons, compared with a whole aisle of regular eggs from battery-cage hens. But if people don’t buy them, the store will stop carrying them, so the only option will then be battery eggs. Sure, those “free-run” chickens never get to go outside. And like all poultry processors, the males are killed at birth since only the females are useful (this goes for the eggs directly from the farmer as well, btw, except in rare cases where the breed of chicken can also work as a meat bird, in which case it may be raised and sold as a capon). But they’re still a step up from the regular eggs where the chickens live four to a square foot and go insane from the stress.

But my point is about the message. By making an ethical (local, sustainable) purchase at the supermarket, we show the supermarkets that these are products that they should continue to carry because people are buying them. If the point in the “eat local” message is truly to support local farmers and ethical, sustainable businesses then we have to look at the bigger picture and do what we can to get everyone involved (and I don’t mean just preaching at them). We can’t do that if eating local is an elitist, rich person’s domain. True change only comes from bringing this movement to the masses and making it easy for them to access these products.

Last time I checked the masses were buying their groceries at supermarkets.