Thrifty Foods and local produce: A Telling Tale

A quick follow up post to The Pros and Cons of Local.  Yesterday, Gregor Craigie, on On the Island, interviewed a representative from Thrifty Foods about a local controversy.  It has come to public attention that Thrifty’s, which does make an effort to source and sell Island produce, is often buying that produce on the Island, shipping it to a Vancouver warehouse, and then shipping it back to the island to sell.  As this seems a counter-intuitive move for efficiency’s sake, CBC wanted to investigate. (Podcast available for June 7)

The resulting information shared by the Thrifty’s rep, though, I think is really telling–because it illustrates both the misconceptions around transportation carbon impact and the issue of efficiency as well as the craziness of the supermarket/global food market industry that we’re stuck with at the moment.

First, the rep clarified that the Vancouver warehouse distribution centre was not a decision made by Thrifty’s’ new corporate owner, the much larger grocery chain Sobey‘s.  In fact, Alex Campbell himself made the decision when it became clear that their current Saanich peninsula warehouse was not big enough for their needs.  Mr. Campbell apparently looked all over the island for space, but finally realized that it made more sense to buy a space in the lower mainland.  Why?  Because that’s where 90-95% of their produce comes to the Island from!  Not necessarily from Vancouver, but everything comes through Vancouver on it’s way to the Island.

The rep also said that the Island produce that they are able to source–and consumer demand is high, so they’re trying–is only available in small quantities, 3-4 months a year.  Creating a distribution plan around that tiny percentage (6-10% during peak season) doesn’t make sense.

So then they talked a little more about the actual distribution process, and again, the realities of the current shipping environment emerges.  It turns out that, as most of the time Thrifty’s has big refrigeration trucks bringing goods from the mainland to the Island, most of the time those trucks were returning to the mainland empty.  Once upon a time those trucks used to transport newsprint off the Island to California for the paper industry, but that market is now 1/4 of what it once was (!).  So in fact, under the new system, those trucks are now taking Island produce over to the mainland on the return trip–no extra cost, and in peak season they are reasonably full 50% or so of the time if I remember correctly.  When the trucks come back to the Island stores, even though they are bringing back that Island produce as well, it’s a tiny percentage of what’s being transported overall, so it has little impact.

The rep did make the point that this system only works for produce that is going to be stored; SunWing tomatoes, for instance, don’t get caught up in this system; they are shipped only on the Island to the Island stores.  But other local food producers are getting the added benefit of growing their businesses, as their produce is now being made available to the lower mainland stores as well, and this is where Thrifty’s is growing.

AAACK!  So what do we make of all this?  Do tell.  Here’s what strikes me.

The story illustrates the efficiency vs local issue.  The rep makes the point that you don’t want a dozen small trucks coming from the various farms and arriving at the distribution centre wreaking havoc.  I can imagine that this kind of transportation is also expensive for the farmer, and it’s probably a barrier that they are relieved to pass back to the buyer.

George Monbiot‘s brilliant (though perhaps out of date as soon as published) book Heat comes to the conclusion that we need fewer small, inefficient supermarkets, and more large distribution warehouse centres that the public shops online from and that deliver goods via large, full, efficient means.

Buying direct from the producer does circumvent this whole crazy system, and we handle the “storage” issue at home.  Growing even a portion of our own food also circumvents the whole distribution issue, and is really the best option.  But I’ve also not really come to terms with the impact of growing our own food on the farmers that we would otherwise be supporting.

It’s also CRYSTAL clear from the Thrifty’s piece that there is not enough local produce to be had.  They are dealing with some of the largest operators on the Island–scale-sized very non-organic producers like Vantreight, Mitchells, etc.–and the results are still really just a drop in the bucket.  I’m really starting to see the reality of the importance of a new explosion of young farmers.  More on that in a future post.

This situation does also illustrate the need for an Island food distribution system, something that’s being worked on by a group in Nanaimo, the Heritage Foodservice Cooperative.

Are there other things that strike you about all this?  Are we just overwhelmed by the size and self-perpetuating nature of the current process?  Do stories like this make you think about where your food comes from and where you want to buy it?  Or is this, as some have argued, the actual resiliency of the food system we have?  Remember that it used to be if a community had a drought or other agricultural disaster, it simply suffered.  Now we have a global food system that can respond, albeit with all kinds of price tags and mixed bag impacts.  Thoughts?

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