We buy peaches in February and don’t even think about it. They’re there, they look good, and so we buy them. But the big food system that provides us with our produce, which includes peaches in February, has created a food disconnect, a no-fault ignorance.
Customers simply don’t know growing seasons – our own (April – October) and certainly not the ones around the world. We don’t even know where our produce comes from unless we’ve heard it’s tainted with salmonella or something else that makes us sick. Then we pay attention.
Local isn’t easy
I saw a colleague eating her so-called baby carrots (they are just whittled down to look like carrot babies) from their food-safe plastic bag and offered her a few of mine, which were in season. They were new and real babies and wrapped in a damp paper towel. She loved them and wanted to know where she could get the same. But she didn’t bother. Buying local produce is work because you have to seek it out. This is odd but true. It’s expensive and you also have to clean it because there’s soil in it. Who needs more work when clean, ready-to-eat ‘baby carrots’ are waiting for you at the supermarket?
Apparently, I do. I go to a farm market during our growing season (April-Oct). It’s takes me 30 or 40 minutes to get there. I always buy too much. It’s the only time I do this. Full bins in the produce or grocery store never make me want to buy too much.
All of us at this farm market know we’re going to eat well. We all know, even if we don’t speak one another’s languages, that food tastes better from down the road, when it hasn’t been on a truck or a ship for days or weeks. We’ve waited and the flavour payoff is great.
The other people who shop at this market with me are mostly immigrants and elderly white people who remember growing a garden or only having local produce. They simply waited for the growing season to plant their gardens or to buy (what we now call) local.
Waiting isn’t something we do well in Canada. I learned this when I stood in a line in a Polish food store in Vancouver and sighed big, obvious sighs and hopped from one foot to another. The other customers just stood stoically and looked ahead thinking their thoughts. They knew waiting; they had done a lot of it behind the Iron Curtain (as it was called in the West).
Local food is expensive. Sad but true. Yes, by buying local dollars stay in the community and feed our tax system (I remind you that our ‘free’ health care comes from taxes) but that doesn’t really speak to the family of five with the parent or parents working two jobs, who need their food to be cheap.
But labour and land are pricey here.
I am always astonished that our produce comes from so far away, uses fossil fuels, warehouses using refrigeration, and is still cheaper than what we grow. Something is not right, definitely out of whack.
Last June I was looking at some local strawberries in a small produce market where I live. They were all different sizes and not at all uniform in shape and they didn’t have a great shelf life. I knew they were juicier and red all the way through than the cheaper California ones next to them. Those were big, red on the outside (mostly), and uniform in size so they fit neatly in a plastic clamshell. Customers chose them, smitten by their hollow beauty and price.
We’re fooling ourselves. Only the lives that pick our food are cheap.
Migrant workers from India, Mexico and further south are treated poorly – here and there. They suffer inadequate fertilizer protection, bad accommodation, below minimum wages. The first wave of the pandemic revealed that there are problems with the farm workers rights (or lack of them). We knew it anyway but we ignored it because we want our low prices and choice.
But how to deliver that and provide local is the question many are working on.
We don’t have to store turnips and apples in the dark, cold cellar like the old days (as though anyone had a cellar today). Couldn’t we grow everything we need and go without those peaches in February? Technology says we can. Finland is a northern county and look what they’re doing.
Relying on food from afar may be cheap now, but for how long? Will the pandemic make it harder to get food from outside our borders? Being more self-sufficient should be part of our geography. We should know how to provide ourselves with food year round.
I know it is easy to say, but I’ll say it anyway, societal and government support for these kind of local food innovations is critical.
Food has to be good
Whatever we grow, we should love what we eat. Really love it – like we’re French, or Italian, or Greek, or Spanish. Those countries import, too, even though they have longer growing seasons. But, they rejoice in their own food because it’s good. So is ours.
A peach from your local orchardist completely satisfies. We think about that peach in the wintertime. We remember how we ate it over the sink. And then we want one.
We can get one, sure. It comes by boat and truck and it doesn’t even need a sink. But, if we wait and pine and experience absence, our hearts do grow fonder.