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 local food, that’s why.

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. Wallmart has perfected it. ¬†Heirloom peaches or a case or two 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.

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 those big guys bring it to us. No one else is set up to  bring in fresh blueberries from Chile in February.

Grocers and many consumers aren’t concerned about no local food in the supermarket. However, when enough customers want local products or something is the trend, the store will bring local in even though they might not make any money. They want to be perceived as a store that sells local.

Men sell, women buy

It’s the way things are. 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 (80% according the 2019 US Bureau of Statistics).

I’ll be called a feminist (as though this were a bad thing) for pointing this out to grocers, even though it is simply a part of big grocery.

The system of processing, distribution and grocery stores developed when bigger was the goal (it still is) and since it was mostly men doing business they saw an opportunity to make things big. No one asked the women, who were the shoppers, what they wanted. It was assumed that they would shop where the stores were. And so we did and do.

Except for a few small changes, grocery stores still work the same system and men are still in charge. Big grocery makes sense to men. You can’t blame anyone for doing what makes sense. But it can be changed and it will be…

Remember, it’s food

I was surprised at the first grocery conference I went to. Grocers did not talk about food. They talked about moving it or what they called, logistics. Anything could have been in those cases. I did learn, as you would expect, that moving food is a field of land mines – best before dates, thawing and refreezing, leakage, breakage, and spoilage. Food of different kinds requires its own kind of distribution – special trucks, special warehouses, forklifts, many fast hands, and many people with clip boards.

It’s all about distribution

A big part of the big system is grocery 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 companies, or the grocery stores themselves. 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. If you found yourself watching Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood, you will know that grocery store cookies are made in a food factory, or more accurately, 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 many cases from falling over.

Following that cookie (or food distribution 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 maybe a train.
  • The cookies are unloaded into the new warehouse where they will sit for a limited time (remember the best before dates which go on at source). 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 (or pop or cereal or salad dressing or whatever else is shelf stable).
  • A similar process exists for frozen, chilled food, or produce though the treatment (warehouse) will be different. Warehouses of many kinds are situated throughout the country and they accommodate food from large processors or growers.

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 grocery 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 companies work hard to be a bigger company so they can get the all-important distributor.

Local may mean more expensive, but if you see local food in your grocery store, show them your love by buying their product.