The Local Food Movement is suffering from a paradox of sorts, and that paradox lies in the problem of distribution. Food is expensive, and there is a common belief that eating organic, healthy, sustainable and locally produced food is financially unattainable. Perhaps this misconception is driven by the supermarkets, where produce in the organic section and meats labeled as “ethically raised” or “grass fed” are priced as boutique items. The truth is that locally produced foods of this nature can be obtained at what most consumers would view to be bargain basement prices… you just have to know where to look, and perhaps settle for a little inconvenience… Sobeys, Superstore and Costco are NOT the best deals going.
Yesterday I took my soaps to sell at a local farm market. It was my first time at this market and I was shocked at how few customers wandered through. The atmosphere was jovial, the vendors were friendly, there was hot food to munch on, coffee, and baked goods, and most importantly there were carrots for $1 a bag, free range brown eggs for $4 a dozen, and squash for $1 each. Try finding prices like that at a supermarket!
By cutting out the middle man and selling at farm gate and market, farmers can offer very competitive pricing, yet it seems the public hasn’t quite caught on. A friend of ours sells grass fed beef for $3 a pound and lamb for $5 a pound. Yes, you have to buy a box of beef (you pick the amount) and you don’t get to pick the cuts, but he ensures a good mix and even the worst cuts are tastier than supermarket meat. Plus, it comes wrapped in butcher paper! No styrofoam trays and plastic to cart to the curb.
Supermarkets have become one more symbol of complacency and laziness. We assume they have the best deals because they purchase in bulk, we relegate all our shopping to their aisles because it’s one-stop shopping. Most people never stop to consider that there might be a better alternative, although they’re plenty happy to complain about how much money they’re spending at the checkout and the tasteless nature of the Mexican berries.
It’s amazing how much our society is willing to sacrifice for the sake of convenience. The same people who are outraged by dogs left in hot cars to die have no problem buying feedlot beef and eggs from chickens raised in battery cages because it’s easy to get and they think it’s cheap. The same people who complain that healthy food is too expensive are unwilling to go to a farmer’s market because they might have to park a block away and walk.
I’m hoping that next week when I go to the market it will turn out that this week was just a bad one. Unfortunately, I know that’s probably not the case. I’m fairly certain there are lots of people who go to the big farmer’s markets like Wolfville and the Seaport because it’s the cool thing to do. I wonder how many people go because it’s the right thing to do? I suspect that if there was a larger contingent buying on principle, the smaller markets would have better turnouts. Am I just cynical, or am I right? For once I’d love to be proven wrong. I’m realizing that ahead of crop failure, disease, harsh winters and fluctuating market prices, distribution might be the biggest challenge in farming.
I’d like to think that people are going to come to their senses and start making smarter choices about where their food comes from. It’s most likely, however, that change will only come when the entire system implodes. When gas prices are so high that nobody can afford spinach trucked from California, when there are no bees left to pollinate things because they’ve been wiped out by hectares of pesticide-sprayed monoculture, when we can’t afford to provide health care for free because so many people have eaten themselves sick… maybe then the system will reset itself and we’ll go back to a time when citizens and governments put more effort into supporting small food producers. I firmly believe the wakeup call is going to come one way or the other. Here’s hoping it comes of our own doing and not because we have no choice.
You don’t need Jamie Oliver to tell you what food is fit to eat. Go to a farmer’s market and talk to the real experts. The real bargain is knowing where your food comes from… and I don’t mean whether it came from the Superstore or from Sobeys.
See you there? I hope so.