About a dozen years ago when I first moved to the old section of Dorion, I would walk a couple of blocks to the little neighbourhood grocery store and get what I needed from its well-stocked shelves. It was an opportunity to meet other people from the neighbourhood. And service was impeccable. The butcher knew exactly which cuts of meat I preferred and would conscientiously prepare them while inquiring about my mother-in-law’s health. The whole experience was very pleasant and forthcoming.
That little grocery store is no more. Only the convenience stores have survived. In turn, Vaudreuil, the city we’ve merged with, is now host to an array of big box stores, such as Wal-Mart and the likes. There are even food warehouse stores. Everything you could ever want… and more! This is the type of development that seems to be most popular right now: large retail centres grouped together to form a depressingly homogeneous concrete landscape. But is this really the way of the future? I’m not so sure.
In terms of the food industry, buying local seems to be winning increasing favour and smaller local markets are usually the favoured source. This summer, there were officially 65 public markets registered with the recently formed the Association des marchés publics du Québec. In fact, the number of markets has doubled over the past four years, which doesn’t even include farmers’ markets that are often a little smaller and but just as popular. On the whole, customers are a generally younger and more aware of the nutritive value of fresh foods, the lighter ecological footprint of such foods and they seem to find great enjoyment in meeting their neighbours.
Some Québec food cooperatives have also chosen to respond to this quest for quality and responsible consumerism. In Europe, the large cooperative group known as Midcounties sets aside select shelf space in its stores to display local as well as fair trade products. Because there are some food basics that still need to be imported, such as sugar, coffee, tea, and chocolate. This creates an opportunity to develop new trade relationships with cooperatives that, in turn, ensure a fair redistribution of any extras obtained from the sale of these products. As for disbelievers, note that Midcounties’ sales and member recruitment have both reaped the benefits!
In the U.S., several cooperatives organize their members’ product distribution through small grocery and food markets. In eastern Canada, Coop Atlantic store aisles increasingly feature the “cooperative distinction”: large signs introducing local farmers and their products to allow consumers to associate a face to the foods they’re buying. How ingenious! This is a far cry from the bland atmosphere that reigns in big box stores.
Nonetheless, I miss my little neighbourhood market where familiar faces were a friendly reminder of the community to which I am a part of. Last summer, I took part in a community-based agricultural program. I liked the principle, but I had to give away half of my weekly baskets because I wasn’t available to pick them up within the planned timeline. I think my schedule is too complicated for this type of formula. Ah, to delight in the flavours of freshly-picked products – nothing beats the delicately sweet crunch of a carrot pulled from right the soil – my backyard garden will have to do for now. Both my pocketbook and the environment are the richer for it since my vegetables don’t travel and my garden thrives on manure and compost. Furthermore, I enjoy working with the earth, digging my fingers deep into the soil, it makes for great therapy for the mind. But, as you all know, nothing is perfect: birds and squirrels couldn’t care less about the health of my loved ones.