Choose quality, buy local
Out with the big and bland, in with the small, sweet and succulent
by Nancy Hinton (food writing 2004)
I just got back from some shopping in the city, and I’m outraged. It’s the height of the strawberry season in Quebec, and at a certain Westmount grocer’s, I see only California strawberries! And summer squash from Peru, and all these other overly packaged, all too pristine and perfect fruit and veg in the place of the abundant local crop. How do they get away with it? Its not like this is an isolated case either; mass produced imports are everywhere, while the higher quality, local produce requires hunting down, trips across town. It would appear that this is what the consumer wants, which I can hardly imagine. Especially that its not just a matter of principle, its about taste and freshness. Produce at its peak from a neighboring farm is bound to taste better than strains bred for sturdiness picked too early, shipped thousands of miles by truck to be shot with ethylene gas to ripen at the warehouse beore being shipped to stores. I see the fields and stalls in the country, I know what’s in season, what’s out, what’s not. But obviously, the average city dweller doesn’t, or doesn’t care, and certainly isn’t encouraged to inquire. He probably trusts that his vendor is providing him with what is best, and he’s been duped.
The state of our food supply is on my mind a lot lately as I become increasingly close to farmers, and pay more attention to what’s on store shelves and in people’s baskets. I now realize how ignorant I was too about where my food came from or how it was produced before I went to work as chef in the country, met the likes of Anne Desjardins, and actually saw the crops growing, met the farmers and listened to their stories. Looking back, it strikes me as screwed up that even a plugged in chef like me could be in the dark about so many things. What’s Mr. Joe Blow who doesn’t spend all day thinking about food supposed to do, he can hardly to to blame. There’s this big machine of a backwards system that controls what we eat, and wants to keep it that way too. The clout of big agri-business, the fact that the big guys are heavily subsidized, coupled with the difficulties of setting up networks for a different distribution for such a short growing season make it hard for the artisans to compete. Who would have thought that there was so much fraud and scandal in the world of fruits and vegetables? I’ve even encountered imports being sold as local at the market, where I guess some people do care...
The fact is is that there is an abundance of quality local produce that doesn’t make it to the shelves of our superstores or vegetable perveyors because they aren’t willing to pay the price, or make the efforts involved in dealing with the little guys, preferring to buy cheaper or easier industrial imports. Until people start putting more pressure on their grocers by not buying this stuff, or making special requests, things won’t change fast enough to save our small local farmer.
There has been some progress, if you consider the promotion of local foodstuffs and artisans on top restaurant menus, the popularity of the farmers’ markets, the growing size of organic sections in the supermarkets, the rise in interest in food culture in general. Given our agricultural history, and cultural tradition of eating well, you’d think it would be more important in our collective conscience. There is some food ethics activism stirring, but it has yet to come mainstream. If the people who can afford to pay a little extra for better food aren’t doing it, then we have along way to go to make it affordable for everyone. Chefs like Anne Desjardins and Normand Laprise made a grass roots start 20 years ago in their support of local farmers, in parallel with organizations like Equiterre who now supply many city dwellers with farm baskets. They were promised a hopeful future, but the fact is that we haven’t come all that far, and those that are still around are still struggling.
All because most of us are too busy to care, because we’re so influenced by convenience and packaging and corporate advertising, or because we feel too squeezed financially to explore what is perceived to be a much more expensive way of eating. (In fact we spend less than we ever did on food and half as much of our income as European countries, we just spend more on Ipods or something). In the city, its so easy to be oblivious to the hows and whys of the farm, the cause and effect of the weather, what practices are sound or not, who is doing what right, who is not. However, we have to ask these questions so that we can make intelligent choices for our own pleasure and health, but also to support those producers in our backyard who toil with their hearts and good sense to produce quality over those that have no regard for anything but the bottom line. We would be getting much more bang for our buck, real flavor, and heirloom varieties that wouldn’t survive the long haul of transport, all while supporting the local economy. We consumers have the power to choose, and can make a difference with our dollar.