How do you trust the food you eat when you don’t know the people you’re buying it from? Over the years, that’s been my response whenever people ask me how to ethically source the food they eat, whether it’s the most sustainable option, whether it’s the best of seasonal produce available or how to get a cut of meat not presented in the display case.
Just get to know your butcher or grocer, I’d tell them. If a retailer has high standards, they’ll do the legwork of solving these challenges and can answer all of your questions. This is more easily said than done, as pretty much all of us shop in a supermarket, rather than at a specialty merchant for individual food products.
Until recently, I did shop the old-timey way. And here I have to acknowledge my food privilege. Up until January, I lived in Kensington Market, a one-of-a-kind Toronto neighbourhood, where I was able to buy meat, cheese, bread, seafood, dried goods and produce all from separate stores. I’d developed a first-name relationship with each shopkeeper. It allowed me to pop into the produce store to ask the owner if he had any VIP lettuce in the back. Or put a pot of water on the stove, run downstairs to buy fresh pasta and be back before the water boiled. I could walk into the produce section at the supermarket and ask, “What’s good today?”
Since moving, and having overcome the initial culture shock, I’ve become enthralled by the supermarket. Bread and cheese in the same store? Filling up a basket with vegetables, milk and toilet paper, and paying in one instalment, instead of a half-dozen exchanges? What a world. It’s easy to imagine how shoppers felt in 1930, visiting New York’s King Kullen, the first supermarket. But quickly I felt trapped, locked into a relationship with a single food provider.
What to do when I don’t like the supermarket peaches and can’t comparison shop among five other produce shops in the area? How do I trust the provenance of meat – how the animal was raised – if I don’t know my butcher by name? What seafood certification body can instil more faith than a fishmonger who carries fish based on a personal relationship with the people who harvest it?
So I tried what had worked for me before: I said hello. I introduced myself to some of the staff at my local supermarket.
In the produce department there were three employees in green coats, restocking the vegetable displays. Happy to be starting a conversation with anything but that tiresome party ice-breaker, “How do you know so-and-so?” I walked up to one of the produce specialists and said, “Hi, I’m Corey. I’m new to the neighbourhood and to shopping here.”
Pretty straightforward. No tricks. Pedro introduced himself and asked how he could help. I explained that I used to be able to go into the local green grocer and ask for “the best lettuce.” How, I asked, could I access that kind of inside knowledge here? Pedro steered me to spinach that had just come in. The store stocks conventional and organic produce separately. On this day, the organic spinach was vibrant, bundled thick and half the price. Displayed on a bottom shelf, I had passed it twice without noticing. I thanked Pedro and he promised to tip me off to the best produce any time I asked. A great start.
At the seafood counter I met Kelly and quickly engaged her in an admittedly fraught conversation about how I could find shrimp that wasn’t tainted by labour exploitation in the supply chain. She suggested that in addition to problems with Thai shrimp, it was best to avoid product from India and Vietnam, and to stick with Argentina. I searched through the dozen different frozen shrimp products. There was only one harvested in Argentina, and it was processed in Vietnam.
But I’m really glad I made that connection. Pedro promised to give me the inside scoop on good produce. And even though Kelly steered me down a dead end, I feel as if I can go to her with key questions that all of us are entitled to ask our fishmonger: When did this fish come in? Is it fresh or frozen? Farmed or wild? Can I smell it?
The nature and size of supermarkets – thousands of square feet, cathedral-high ceilings, dozens of employees – make us feel as if our interaction has to be impersonal. But any organization is made up of individuals, and likely they care about doing a good job. More importantly, everyone likes recognition.
If you’re looking to start this kind of conversation at your local supermarket, start with a compliment. Tell them how impressive the deli section is before asking specific questions about the sliced turkey options. Tell people your name. Yes, it is an old sales schtick, but you’re not selling anything. What you’re searching for, within an over-lit, dehumanizing retail environment, is trust. And trust can be built only on a sincere, human connection, which starts by being a person with a name, not just a series of annoying questions.
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