The Realities of Buying Local

Twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday mornings, a gentleman drives up in a refrigerated truck to my grandparent’s neighbourhood in the south ofFrance, parks and pops open the side of his truck.  On a bed of ice is a full display of fresh, local seafood. Langoustines, oysters, sea bream, mussels, sardines and more.  Within two hours, he would be out of stock and on his way, despite the existence of two supermarkets within a three minute walk and the full central market, only fifteen minutes away on foot.

This has been going on in their neighbourhood for two decades.  His success is based on two things: accessibility and reasonableness.  He came to the shoppers with fresh, local fish and seafood and he charged a reasonable price.  Buying local is a fabulous concept and there are many reasons to do it, both ecological and economic.  These reasons have been listed and evaluated a hundred times over in the rush of articles that have taken over lifestyle sections of most every newspaper and magazine throughoutNorth America.  But ‘buying local’ is not always as practical as the travelling fishmonger I have described.  In their book “The 100-Mile Diet: A Year of Local Eating”, Alisa Smith and J.B. MacKinnon describe their struggles in sourcing all their food within 100 miles of theirVancouverapartment.  Never mind that their first dinner for four cost over $128.  Let’s also factor in that they are both young, with no children.  They didn’t even have regular 9 to 5 jobs.  They had the time and the energy to source everything they wanted or needed.  This is a little extreme for the average person with a family and a job and a life, not to mention a mortgage and a food budget.

This is where organizations representing farmers and producers throughout the country come in.  In my neck of the woods, we have Kawartha Choice FarmFresh.  They produce a map that shows people where the farmer’s markets and farm gate sellers are, as well as retailers and restaurants that are using local produce and foods.  They are doing a great job and have an excellent vision for their future that includes events which both entertain and educate the public about ‘farm to fork’ economics. I have one of the maps in the glove box of my non-eco friendly SUV and my husband and I stop once in a while at some of the retailers to pick up what is fresh and local.  Realistically though, with busy lives and hectic schedules, we often pick up what is available at the grocery store, where we can also pick up the plethora of other non-local things that we need, all in one trip.  Many times, the fruit and veggies we buy areOntariogrown, though not necessarily local to the Kawarthas.  Lifestyles are what they are and people don’t change their habits unless they are encouraged to do so by means that are both reasonable and accessible.

An example of this is Blue Box recycling. Recycling was not a new concept when this program was implemented inOntarioin the late 1980’s, but it was something that only a smaller group of people did.  Social conscience was not enough of a motivator for the majority however and it wasn’t until theOntariogovernment poured some money into the program to provide blue bins free of charge and curb side pick up of the contents of the bins that the program became mainstream.  Why?  It was accessible: people could dump their glass, plastic and paper into the containers and drop them at the curb, just as they were already doing with garbage.  It was reasonable: there was no obvious cost to the individual since boxes were provided free of charge.  There is a reason that adages like ‘old habits die hard’ are so relevant: human behaviour is difficult to change and in this rock ‘em, sock ‘em world, it’s even more difficult to do.

So I pondered how these local farm organizations could help facilitate both the accessibility and reasonableness of the local foods that are available, to encourage people to buy them.  One group that seems to be ahead of the game is Foodlink Waterloo Region.  This group has also produced a map of local growers and producers, markets, retailers and restaurants but it is also going several steps further.  They have recognized, as part of their mandate, that in addition to “promoting healthy, local food” and “adding value to local agricultural production”, one of their focuses has to be: “improving consumer access to local food.”  That’s the crux of it all, really.  I don’t think most people would object to eating grapes that were grown inOntariorather than grapes that travelled 3,000 kms by truck, after being picked under-ripe by a worker being paid a pitiful sum.  So why are so many people not yet on the bandwagon? 

The ‘reasonable and accessible’ theme came out again and again as I tried to answer this question by talking to individuals, chefs and retailers.  Individuals were worried about the cost of the food – it’s still cheaper to buy a lettuce fromPeruthan one fromCambridge,Ontario.  They were also bothered by the issue of accessibility.  As one person said to me: “How am I saving the environment if I have to drive 50 kms round trip to the different places that have what I need?  One for eggs, one for fruit and veg, one for some beef patties.  It’s too onerous.  And what the heck is my mother in law supposed to do?  She doesn’t drive!”  Another friend inTorontotried to join a CSA this spring and couldn’t find one that could take her.  CSAs are Community Supported Agriculture, a system where customers buy a share of the future crops at the beginning of the season and then pick up weekly boxes of produce, depending on what is in season.  They were all full and not taking any new customers. 

Chefs had other interesting perspectives.  While it is definitely chic to list origins of your ingredients directly on the menu, it isn’t always practical. Food that arrives from local farmers can sometimes be inconsistent in terms of quality, even packaging.  One chef described that meat orders were often not cleaned up or packaged adequately.  Result?  His staff was spending time after an order was received prepping the meat or vacuum packaging it, if it wasn’t going to be used immediately, adding to the cost of purchasing meats locally.  Another chef indicated that ordering from the larger food companies was more reliable from a loss/costing point of view.  He cited an example: French rack of lamb.  If he buys 100 racks, locally, for an event that he is catering, he has found that there was about a 20% loss from inconsistent cutting (and therefore cooking times) to sizing and each rack requiring prep work.  When he orders from the larger food companies, there is a loss of maybe 1 or 2%, allowing him to accurately calculate his food costs and run his business effectively.  The availability of sufficient quantities of produce has also proven to be inconsistent, creating more work for the restaurant in having to source the same products from different places if they want to use local resources. 

Retailers too are finding out that they can’t source local products very easily, in the quantities they would need to make it worthwhile. 

So I have thrown up a lot of road blocks but, ultimately, there is no denying that buying local is better for the local economy and the environment in general.  The key is to find the tools that will make it reasonable and accessible to everyone, both retail and wholesale.  A recent marketing initiative held by Kawartha Choice FarmFresh resulted in a lot of discussion around exactly this point and some of the solutions offered were things like: co-operative selling among smaller farmers to allow one source, particularly on the wholesale side, thereby avoiding the situation where the restaurant has to source many farmers for one product.  Another suggestion was to provide a system of delivered food boxes, on a slightly larger scale than the organic CSAs.  This initiative is also being investigated by Foodlink and is already in place at FoodShareOntario, where local produce is supplemented by items from the Ontario Food Terminal.  As I write this, I can hear the groans of the people who don’t consider the Food Terminal to be part of ‘buying local’.  But as FoodShareOntariohas discovered, there isn’t enough local supply to adequately meet the needs.

It is the ultimate irony that there is far more demand than supply of local produce.  So while we’re talking about making ‘buy local’ more mainstream, there is the possibility that we don’t have the supply of smaller farmers to sustain such a system. Farmer’s markets, open from 8 a.m. – 1 p.m. are shutting down at 11 a.m. because they’ve run out of food.  It’s a bit of a stampede at some markets inTorontoand line ups abound to get that last basket of mushrooms.  Smaller farmers are just too few to meet the demand that has been whipped up by the marketing of ‘buying local’.  Another very important role for the food organizations would be one of education.  Educating young people about getting into farming.  Pairing a young farmer with an older farmer as a form of apprenticeship.  A lot of good ideas are lost in re-inventing the wheel.  Perhaps it’s time we looked to the fishmonger inFrancefor inspiration.




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