Going to hell for a bag of carrots

At Zehrs Canadian carrots cost three times as much as imported

Another Saturday morning commitment prevented us from going to Guelph Farmers’ Market this week. We ended up shopping for produce at Zehrs on Monday afternoon. I was faced with the choice of buying a 1.36 kg (3 lb.) bag of imported US carrots or one-third the quantity of Canadian carrots for the same price, $3.39 if memory serves me correctly. What level of hell is this we live in?

Unless you are wealthy or extremely well-organized, it is nearly impossible to survive through a Canadian winter eating only local food. I tried it last year and did reasonably well. Most of our meat, dairy and produce came from local farmers. We relied heavily on potatoes, carrots and squash. I was delighted to find a steady supply of hydroponic tomatoes and lettuce from Ontario.

There were certain questions I was afraid to ask. For instance, after eating no fruit but apples for months, I realized they were all probably imported.

It didn’t work. By definition a faithful Canadian locavore must entirely give up citrus fruit, and that’s just for starters. It is important to pick our battles. I would rather fight off junk food cravings. Bananas, avocados and almonds may be imported from the tropics, but they are far healthier than a cheese sandwich or a bag of chips.

So this past winter I tried to strike a reasonable compromise. The lettuce for my daily salad lunches often came from Ontario greenhouses, but each week I bought several lemons or limes for healthy, delicious dressing. We supplemented local potatoes, onions and cabbage with bananas of unknown origin.

But when faced with that decision over a bag of carrots, I crumbled. A large bag contributes to five or six meals over several weeks. We can’t afford qualms over this moral dilemma.

This week CBC Metro Morning‘s Matt Galloway interviewed Don Mills, president of Local Food Plus, about Ontario’s hopefully impending Local Food Act, which ought to channel more domestic meat, dairy and produce into our stores, restaurants and institutions. Mills talked about what this means to him as a farmer:

Well, it’s hard to explain to people why you would do some of the things we do – why we put the hours in. You [as a farmer] go through periods … where you make some money, and there’s periods where you don’t, and you weather out those down-times.

I suspect it’s a lot like being [born] into a family of construction [workers], or probably a family of small retailers, where you grew up working the till from early in the morning. So, it’s hard to explain to people why. But there certainly is something in terms of that’s where I am happiest … out in the barn with the animals or out in the fields.

To close the conversation, Galloway asks whether consumers want this shift toward local food to happen.

I do. I care a great deal about the environmental cost of shipping carrots hundreds of kilometres, and about supporting local economy. At times I have, and will continue, to pay more. But when faced with paying three times the price, I go to hell.

This is why I choose to shop at the farmers’ market whenever possible. Not all the food is local, but it is widely available, clearly identified, and priced on the same order of magnitude as imported stuff. Maybe the Local Food Act will help change the market structure to help bring down prices at places like Zehrs. I hope it will. But there is also a peace of mind in knowing the faces of people who grew our potatoes, beef and goat cheese.


Going to hell for a bag of carrots — 4 Comments

  1. I’d feel more comfortable purchasing the CDN$ 3.39 bag of carrots, especially in light of the cutbacks in USDA inspection due to the idiotic sequestration process, watering down of organic standards, and US’ overall willingness to accept GMO crops.

    • I don’t know about food inspection, but Canada follows American policies fairly closely with respect to organic standards and GM foods, so there is no particular advantage in those respects.

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