I often talk with folks about our local food economy and the problems that confront us regarding the health of the Bay. When I get into how our food buying choices (wholesale, retail - large and small) impact the Bay and the surrounding watershed I observe that folks tend to "glaze over."
They become very depressed and feel immobilized and I can understand. It's so easy to assume that what one thinks, or what one does - just your own little effort - doesn't really make any difference. That's a mistake, because it does. It does make a difference.
In this month's column we'll consider WHERE our hard earned dollars wind up when we spend them food shopping. And we'll consider the ramifications, market-wise, culture-wise, health-wise, of our food buying choices.
You see, collectively, we wield enormous power just with our wallets and pocketbooks. In a market-driven economy, the most effective tool in our grasp, the one that could change the world, change our country, change our state and revive our communities, sits right there in our pocket.
Don't believe me? - Let's go shopping!
First we'll head off to a typical, local supermarket. We encounter an enormous number of choices and variety. We walk into a 40,0000 square foot - very air-conditioned - well-lit expanse of shopping delight. You know what it's like.
Normally I start off in the produce aisle, sailing my cart through the stands of apples, peaches, bananas, strawberries, kiwi, mango and countless other exotic fruits, stacked high and regularly moistened to give a mouth watering, almost sexy appearance. Taking a closer look, I find that the apples are from New Zealand, the peaches from Chile, the bananas from South America, the strawberries from Mexico... kiwis are from New Zealand, and so forth.
Across the aisle will be the additional stands of lettuces and vegetables - in all sorts of colors, shapes and sizes - again these are misted to give that "freshly- picked-from-the-fields-that-morning" kind of feel, even though most have been shipped from California. And I've noticed you find less simple heads of lettuce offered, and more and more of these pre-washed-pre-bagged lettuces - "salad mixes" - complete with gasses that have been injected inside the bag to preserves "freshness."
But, anyway... Let's think just a minute about where our food dollar winds up once we spend it here. Does it return, recycle through, enrich our local economy? Does it?
Now I weave through a traffic jam of shopping carts to the dairy case. Here I'm greeted with waxed, cardboard containers of milk - whole, half-and-half, 2%, 1%, fat free, lactose free and a few other types I cannot make hide nor hair of. You have almost as many choices and variables with cheese, yogurts and cottage and cream cheese regarding fat content.
Most of these products are emblazoned with names and logos of multinational food companies that we are all quite familiar with, but none are local. None even have their corporate headquarters close by, or their processing and manufacturing plants. Hmmm... now where's the money we spend on these items going?
Towards the back of the supermarket I find the meat and poultry department. Steaks, ground meat, pork chops and roasts are all manufactured in feedlots and "processing" plants in the Midwest. Now the chickens are usually manufactured (notice I haven't used the word "farm") in plants closer to home.
That could be a comfort if it weren't for all the heated discussion about the effect of our area's huge poultry operations on the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of the millions of chicken that are produced in the Delmarva region are exported all over the world. Unfortunately the nastier aspects of all that chicken production are left behind here in the Chesapeake watershed, impacting our health and our economy.
Of course a trip to the supermarket would not be complete without a visit to the bread aisle. On second thought we better not talk about THAT! I could get too upset and then have to lie down. Approximately ninety percent of what is sold in the "bakery" at the grocery store is not really "bread" - appearances not-withstanding! Whatever it is, it has unfortunately not been yet been outlawed.
The lion's share of the other bakery products found here - pies, cakes, strudels, cakes, donuts, etc. are various combinations of over-processed flour that has been mixed with loads of sugar, high fructose syrup, gum, stabilizers and ample helpings of fat - saturated, unsaturated, transfat , along with preservatives and artificial flavorings (O My God - Just READ the ingredients!) all of which are making the stockholders of the pharmaceutical companies that sell diabetic medications quite rich.
Then there's the Middle - I mean the middle aisles of the grocery store. Traditionally the Middle was smaller in scale and mainly stocked your basic pantry items; i.e. canned fruits and vegetables, flour, sugar, tea, oils, spices, coffee and tea, preserves, basic cereals and grains. However as of late the Middle has transformed itself into a Processed Food Wonderland - and for the most part it is best to stay out of the middle. Precious few of the sales from the Middle benefit our region either monetarily or health wise.
You may be feeling not so good about the local supermarket right now but don't fret. It doesn't have to be this way! Most responsible grocers will respond to their customer's demands. We are seeing more and more organic selections even in the national chain stores. Quite a number of our supermarkets are now making commitments to buy local produce in season, breads locally made, coffee that has been roasted locally, and artisan products.
For the most part these food products are healthier for our bodies and they are definitely good for our local economy. By purchasing from local growers and vendors our supermarkets help put money into the pockets of the people who are our neighbors. It's a win win! It is not as easy for the large markets to purchase from smaller, local producers but it is well worth the effort - especially if their customers respond.
So, speak up. Let the managers at your markets know your thoughts. Want more local food choices? Let them know. And when they do make such products available be sure to buy them and to thank the store managers for being responsive. This is how change is made. By voicing our concerns and providing feedback we can help shape our larger chain markets into truly beneficial cornerstones of our communities.
In the next column we'll take a stroll - canvas shopping bags in tow - to a number of our local farmers' markets to see how our purchases there will affect the economy of our cities and towns and the health of our Chesapeake Bay watershed.
John Shields is the author of Chesapeake Bay Cooking and Coastal Cooking with John Shields. His PBS television program, "Coastal Cooking with John Shields," airs nationwide.