Local foods VS Costco

March 7, 2010

The problem with the whole local foods movement is that when it comes right down to it, consumers are slaves to their training:  they resolutely search out the lowest possible price, and the kind of food everyone admits is good for you costs 30 to 40% more, so most people talk one way and then load up their carts at Costco with factory-grown chicken, pork, and imported fruits and vegetables.

This kills the market for local food.  Of course it’s hard to feel enthusiastic about a cartload of Costco.

Then there’s the look on the faces of visitors to the sugar shack when they get their first taste of Canada tea, made with boiling sap and a tea bag.  First it’s amazement at a new taste they haven’t encountered before.  Then they look a bit bewildered:  “Why am I so surprised by a new taste?  Why does everything in my life taste the same?  And this came from a tree?”  Off they go to the woods to gather more sap.

Then there’s Christopher and his discovery of black walnuts.  This pint-sized hockey player found that if he put his back into it, he could make the walnut press generate the 700 lb. of force it takes to crack the shells and give him access to delicious meats inside.  He cracked a lot of nuts once he got the hang of it.

Roz and her friends have often told me that Kingston has a great deal to offer to those who live there, but the one big gap is the lack of a great, wooded park in which to wander.  Christopher’s mom came back from gathering sap and enthused:  “This is way better than walking around the trails in the Cataraqui Conservation Authority.”

It seems people think differently about prices when they are engaged in acts of tourism.  Perhaps it’s because the thought process is longer with a vacation:  tourists aspire and dream;  they travel;  they drink in the experience;  they remember it and use it to shape their other experiences and world view.  That’s much different from the immediate choice to buy pork chops or the frozen lamb at Costco.

The challenge for local food producers is to take their customers clean away from the cutthroat thought patterns of the supermarket shopper.  They need make their products part of an enjoyable and memorable vacation experience to which their customers will want to return, with the price of the food a minor factor.

If individuals become tourists to explore and search for sensations lost through the commodification of modern life, why shouldn’t they find a fresh reality in the countryside?  Why shouldn’t they discover the joy of fresh-picked corn, or spend a lazy afternoon under a mulberry tree, eating their fill of the strange, refreshing fruit?

How about a day picking grapes or planting trees, if extreme vacations are your thing?

My son tells me that there are no distances in air travel.  The only directions are up, down, and hot.

Tourism involves a journey, but if there are no longer real distances, why can’t the journey be twenty or forty minutes to a vacation destination, instead of across the continent?  Why couldn’t a garden plot provide a perfectly valid “other place” to which one’s soul can yearn to escape?  Families travel to give their kids experience and understanding of their world, yet how many suburban children have ever milked a cow, planted potatoes, picked raspberries or gathered eggs?  No parents would want to deny these experiences to their kids if the facilities were within easy reach.

How many of you remember biting into a fresh carrot which exploded its sweetness on the tongue?  I tried a store-bought carrot a week ago and almost cried from disappointment.  It was orange.  That’s the best thing I can say for it.

40% more for the real thing?  Sounds like a bargain — if I have stood in the garden from which it came.