“Buying Local” Is a Pain In the Neck!
I just wanna cut a hole in my kitchen counter.
At, say, five or six pm on a Thursday.
Is that too much to ask for?
Yesterday I bought a new sink and faucet. The old faucet was too crusty to rotate and the sink just wouldn’t stay clean. Time for stainless steel! I chose nine pm last night to install it. Seemed easy enough and I would then let the silicone sealant around the rim dry overnight. Today, my kitchen would be back in business. The new sink is the same size as the old one, almost. So I have to cut the hole about a half inch larger. I gave up last night, borrowed a jig saw for the job today, and found out quickly I needed to run out and buy a finer toothed blade.
Speaking of kitchens, as you may know from most any other post on this blog, I eat locally. I buy just about everything we eat from a farmer…someone I know, with a name and a story. Or I grow it myself, which is very rewarding too (the March 3 Garden Project). So through food I have come to appreciate how important it is to buy things locally and support small, local businesses and entrepreneurs. I even wrote a blog post months back urging us all to shop at local stores and keep money circulating in our local economies. I admit I’m a little slow to this when talking about non-food things. I have made many trips recently to Home Depot for garden supplies.
So it’s about five pm and I need a saw blade, like I was saying. I figure I’ll just “dart out” to my local hardware store and pick one up. Back in my kitchen sawing away in under a half hour. Should really ride my bike, it’s so close. But I drive. Lame, but I’ll be redeemed.
“Local Hardware Store #1” does not have any fine-toothed jigsaw blades. I’m surprised and disappointed. They refer me up the street to “Local Hardware Store #2”, which is slightly irritating, but it’s close.
This second store does not have ANY jigsaw blades. Wha?
Someone just said, “You’ve heard the YellowPages slogan, ‘phone first’, right?”
To which I reply: Suppose you were headed to the local grocery store, any grocery store, to buy milk. Not fancy, locally produced, un-pasteurized milk, just plain ‘ol grocery store milk. Would you ‘phone first’? I don’t think so. Or if you were running out to the drug store for kleenex, would you call them to check that they had it in stock? Right. To me, walking into a hardware store for a standard item like a jigsaw blade is like buying milk or kleenex. It’s just gonna be on the shelf, no question!
Naturally though, the friendly and helpful proprietor of “Local Hardware Store #2” is more than happy to send me farther up the street (miles) to “Local Hardware Store #3”. At this point I’m getting tired of driving around and I am STUNNED to pull up to this store to find that it closed at six!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
How are you going to sell me jigsaw blades if you’re not open? What about all the home handymen who have normal day jobs and then wanna go home and fix something in the evening? How can this be? How can I “buy local” if local is not open and doesn’t carry what I need? How does this “buy local” thing work anyway?
Off to Home Depot. Major carbon footprint through heavy traffic. In and out in five minutes with two types of fine-toothed jigsaw blades. You may not like big boxes, but hello!
So what is it about their business model that works? Hmmm…they have what I need and they are open when I need them to be.
Now about local food.
Is local food available when I need it? Nope, not always.
Is food different from hardware. Still thinking about that.
I am able to make food substitutions and plan menus on the fly to accommodate what is fresh and available. With hardware there isn’t always that flexibility. When you need a tool, that’s the tool you need. Often there is no substitute and you need it NOW because your kitchen is all torn up and you’d like to put dinner on the table sometime this WEEK.
I sit in local food conferences and meetings and I talk with local food advocates. Most will tell you that one of local food’s big hurdles is distribution. Small farmers need to figure out how to get their meats and produce to us in a cost-effective way. I guess it’s not easy. Aside from growing your own and CSAs, if you, like me, want to eat locally in Chicago, your shopping choices are farmer’s markets and approximately four small stores: the Downtown Farmstand, Green Grocer, The Dill Pickle Coop and the New Leaf. Provenance is wonderful too, but not for fresh produce, just meats, cheeses, drinks and specialty items.
I’d define these shopping options as pretty scarce and not “available when I need it”. More akin to the “Local Hardware Store” than the big box. They are geographically challenging for me and there just aren’t enough of them in the city. Looking at this list, I’d say “local food” is a niche market. Bummer. I want it EVERYWHERE. It’s so wonderful I want EVERYONE to have it and I wish shopping for it weren’t such a challenge. I buy locally in part to reduce my carbon footprint and then I drive all over town to get to these places. Hmmm…
So about this “buy local” thing. How does it work exactly?