Where’s the local food in the supermarket?

local food

You want to know why you don’t see much local food in the supermarket? There’s not enough of it.

Supermarkets want volume. Lots and lots of volume. The grocery business is a network of big: big growers, big food processors, big conglomerates, big warehouses, big distribution. The bigger everything is the less you will spend on your groceries. Heirloom peaches or a box of artisan crackers don’t add up to very much but when there’s a lot? Then it’s a stroke of the logistical pen. The Cheaper by the Dozen theory.

In western Canada we get most of our produce from California, Mexico, Florida, and Chile. We get a lot of our processed food from the US, though there may be a Canadian subsidiary (Kraft is a good example). The consumer wants everything all the time and the big guys bring it to us. They aren’t concerned about why there isn’t local food in the supermarket except if enough customers ask for it.

I’ll be called a feminist (as though this were a bad thing) for pointing this out, even though it is simply part of big grocery. It’s the way things are – men sell, women buy. I know more men do the grocery shopping now, and this is good, but it’s still largely the women who push and fill the carts. Besides, the system blossomed when it was men doing the business and women buying the groceries. Except for a few small changes, it is still the same system, and men are still in charge. Big grocery makes sense to the ones who devised it.

Distribution

A big part of the big system is distribution. It is why we get what we get.

Food distribution involves airplanes, trains, trucks and warehouses. The warehouses are owned by the company that makes the food, distribution networks, or the grocery stores. Usually, a combination of all three are used to move groceries from there to here.

Following a bag of cookies will give you an idea – a trail worth following. If, for any reason, you found yourself watching Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, you know that grocery store cookies are made in a food factory, although the factory is known as a food processing plant. Once made, they are packaged, put in cases, and then stacked onto a pallet to form a skid. Every skid is wrapped in a tremendous amount of plastic (that’s a rant for another day) that keeps the cases from falling over.

Food distribution simply (very simply) defined

  • The food processor has a number of big trucks and those trucks are loaded with the skids of cookies and whatever else the company makes. They are then driven from the processing plant to a warehouse.
  • The cookies are unloaded from the truck, into the warehouse, and soon to be loaded onto another truck and shipped to other warehouses across the country. Shipping is generally by truck, but the cookies could be shipped by airplane or less likely, a train.
  • The cookies are unloaded into the new warehouse where they will sit for a limited time (remember the best before dates). The cookie skids are broken up and re-stacked with different cases of food that have gathered at the warehouses from other processors. The new skid, the one with the cookies, is reloaded onto another truck.
  • The case of cookies could end up in another warehouse or be sent directly to your grocery store. Many factors influence whether the case of cookies will have a warehouse stop over. Distance is one of them. You might live in Pangnirtung. If the goods weren’t diverted a while back, they will be now.
  • Obviously, there’s a lot of hands touching that case of cookies before the consumer gets a single bag. These are well travelled cookies.
  • A similar process exists for frozen or chilled food or produce, just different treatment. There are many different kinds of warehouses throughout the country all to do with food from large processors or growers.

Remember what it is

It is food. This might be forgotten. I was surprised at the first grocery conference I went to. Grocers did not talk about food. They talked about moving it, logistics. Moving the cases efficiently and in a time sensitive manner was important. It’s a field of land mines – best before dates, thawing and refreezing, leakage, breakage, and spoilage. They all require their own kind of distribution – special trucks, special warehouses, forklifts, many fast hands, and many people with clip boards.

Small food

So how does a small food producer get his or her stuff to market? In their own car, that’s how. They go to each store, or if they’re lucky enough to have a contract with a regional chain then to that chain’s warehouse. It’s very time consuming but, right now, it’s the only way to do it. The local processor simply doesn’t have the volume. Maybe a local depot will become a reality with the pandemic and a local distributor with a warehouse will be imminent. Meanwhile the small potatoes work hard to be a bigger potato so they can get a distributor.

Local may mean more expensive than Kraft, but handmade is always that way and distribution is one big reason. So, if you see local food in a grocery store, show them your love by buying their product.