B.C. Grown: How to Shop Locally & Sustainably

Choices Markets

Choices Markets

I began my dietetics career as a supermarket dietitian at Choices Markets - a B.C. owned and operated retailer of natural, organic and specialty foods. After spending five glorious years with the company in this position and eventually working as the nutrition manager, I can honestly say, I truly understand the importance of a sustainable food system. One of my favourite parts of the job was visiting local farmers and food producers and sharing the information with you! You have already met Marc from Island Bison Ranch, took a behind the scenes peek at Rossdown Farms and Natural Foods, met one of the G’s in Double G Cattle Company - Graham Covey, and chatted with a local fisherman, Mike. But now, I would like to introduce you to my produce guru Dave Wilson. Dave is my go-to guy for anything produce - what’s in season, why are blueberries here so early and all my other weird produce questions! So, sit back and relax and enjoy this interview with the one-of-a-kind Dave!

1. Tell us your story! What makes you Mr. Produce (@themrproduce)?

I've been working in the Retail Grocery industry for 30 years, the last 20 of which have been as the program director - produce - for Choices. It's one of those scenarios where you end up accidentally getting into something, realizing you have a passion for it, being good at it, and the universe aligned to allow me to follow. I love all things produce related - program development, retail, wholesale, distribution, procurement...but most of all I admire and respect the people who grow our food. These folks can get lost in the shuffle when we think about our food supply - and they shouldn't - it's incredibly hard work and a labour of love for everyone I've met over the last 25 years. Other experiences include: past steering committee member with Farm Folk City Folk, past board member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council, and I’ve spent the last two springs teaching kids about local food with Growing Chefs.

2. Vancouverites want to support local farmers but can we do this by shopping at a grocery store? Or do we need to head to the Farmer's Market every weekend or buy Community Supported Agriculture boxes to guarantee we are directly supporting local BC produce farmers?

I guess we need to define what is 'local'. Prior to 2013, the Federal Government used to define 'local' as anything produced within 50km of where it was sold. For various reasons, they then adopted an interim policy (still in use today) that defines local as:

  1. being produced in the province or territory in which it is sold, or

  2. food sold across provincial borders within 50km of the originating province or territory: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/food/requirements-and-guidance/labelling/industry/origin/eng/1393622222140/1393622515592?chap=4

So if Vancouverites want to support local agriculture they will want to determine what local means to them. For instance, I know of a large grocery chain who markets some of their products in Vancouver as 'local' because it's grown in Western Canada. To me, that's not even close to local, especially when we have Fraser Valley produce available at the same time.

People should ask the 'local' question anywhere they shop and make their purchase decisions based on the transparency of the answers they get. In my opinion, you'll have the most direct and positive impact prioritizing:

1. CSA - these are truly ground roots, typically small operations, quite often young agrarians, toiling blood, sweat and tears to provide you their best crop. This is the most direct way to pay the grower. You'll also be helping the farmer move more of the product they have most of, as the box you receive is filled with their selection of product based on what's available. We as consumers can be incredibly fickle - imagine being a farmer and trying to guess what your customer wants every week - it's far from functional.

2. Farmers Markets - most vendors are providing directly from the farm, but it's not always the farmer themselves you're dealing with. Ask the questions about the farm you most want to know the answers to. Farmers Markets are a huge time resource for farmers, so if they can afford to attend you'll be paying them directly. If they've hired people to work on their behalf, it's usually friends and/or family members, and your money will still have a direct route to the farmer.

3. Grocery stores - choose your stores carefully and beware of local washing. There's a huge variance in what is being offered. Signage is not always accurate (this is far harder to execute accurately in a retail store than you might imagine), and ask questions of the team in the store. Base your purchase decisions on their answers but don't be offended if the retail team can't answer your questions - it's an incredibly complex business to source and provide fresh produce - training is incredibly difficult, turnover is high, and some people aren't nearly as engaged in their role as...well, me. If the retail store can provide the answers you seek and you feel they're transparent and traceable, go for it! I have my favourite (Choices Markets) and I have my least favourites (won't name names here).

To recap answers to your question then:

  1. CSA

  2. Farmer's Markets

  3. Choose your retail stores wisely - there are some good ones. Try to stay away from the large corporate stores who have the same floor layout in every location - these are typically high volume, efficiency minded operations, where 'local' and 'organic' are category trends.

3. To you, what makes a "good" farmer? In other words, when deciding which produce items to bring in what standards do you look for?

That's a tough one. I try to visit each farm and prospective farmer I work with to get a feel for them and their operation. How do they treat the people who work for them (assuming they even have employees). How clean and organized are they - which is a highly interpretive question - but what I'm really looking for are areas of potential cross-contamination, pollutants, food safety issues. I ask them what their needs are as a grower, and explain what my needs are as a retailer - hopefully we'll be able to work together.

Professionally, we have a Canada GAP (Good Agricultural Practices) certification of organic status requirement (if the grower claims to be organic) in order to purchase for any of our locations. While some might view this as administrative overkill, it's the most effective way to offer the most transparency, traceability, and overall food safety of any operation.

4. What questions should a consumer ask when buying produce to make sure they are supporting these good farmers?

CSA/Farmers Markets - where are you located? What is the size of your farm? How many employees do you have and how do you find them? Do you own your land or lease? What are your hopes for the future of your farm and the future of locally produced food?

Retail - Where is this farm located? How can I tell from the signs? How big is it? Have you met the farmer? Have you visited the farm? How do you define local? How many local items do you have in store today? These will be VERY tough questions for many retailers to answer - chances are you'll have to ask the produce manager - but not always. If they can't answer most of these questions - ask yourself how important it is to you, and whether you want to spend your money with them.

5. People talk about the produce today being less nutritious than it was 100 years ago due to farming practices and the health of our soil - do you believe this? And what can consumers do about it?

If you care about food, the planet's health, and the health of the people who work in the growing industry - it's simple - just buy organic (certified - with 3rd party verification). Every vendor at a Farmers Market should be able to produce their certification, and if they have one, they'll be proud to do it. Retail stores should be able to show you the boxes their product came in, and/or check back to their vendors to ensure the product complies. This isn't too big of a deal at most retail stores - they're liable for any claims they make and as such, their sourcing model should be very transparent (although it might take a bit of time to dig up the info).

6. Anything else we should know about where our produce comes from?

Producing food locally costs more than it does anywhere else in the WORLD. An acre of land in Metro Vancouver is around $100,000. 20 minutes south across the US border and it's 1/10th that. 2,300km south of that in Mexico - it's 1/10th again. But wages for farm workers decrease along the same metrics. The US and Mexico also have better infrastructure supporting farmers - more so than in BC. They have technology in place (hydro cooling and effective packing material) and efficiencies of scale making it easier to grow, pack, and ship product, compared to BC.

Remember how much taxes, fuel, real estate, wages, cost of living is here? The farmer deals with all those same struggles!

Remember how easy it is to grow your own food? Right... it's hard, and expensive, and time consuming. And that's just in your yard, balcony, or community garden. Imagine trying to do it for a living? Then paying $3 for a box to pack it in, put it in a truck with a cooler, pay $1.50/L for fuel, and yearly insurance.

But before you even do that, you need to buy seeds (unless you're saving your own - a time consuming venture), prepare the ground, maintain and fuel your farm machinery and irrigation, hope for good growing conditions (what if it's not warm enough, or there's less sunlight than your plants like, or it rains too much... or not enough). Oh, and you have to worry about pests!

So, when you can find US or Mexican bunch spinach for .98 cents (and I'm not knocking US or Mexico - we need them to provide a huge amount of fresh food for us when it's NOT our growing season), and the BC bunch spinach is $1.98, and it's a bit dirty, and maybe breaking down somewhat because it's been raining in BC for a week, remember how much effort and the various financial challenges that grower went through. Remember also, that they spend money in the same local economy that you're apart of, their kids might go to school with yours, and finally, take a minute to thank them for doing what they do. Because if they didn't, who would?

Follow Dave on Instagram @themrproduce

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