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Why Big Box Retailers Cost Communities More

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"'Eating is an agricultural act,' as Wendell Berry famously said. It is also an ecological act, and a political act, too. Though much has been done to obscure this simple fact, how and what we eat determines to a great extent the use we make of the world -- and what is to become of it."
―Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

Life-sustaining ingredients -- food, water, sex, and sleep -- are intimately connected to the communities we call home. Our individual well-being and ability to survive and thrive springboards off this base. Human history from hunters and gatherers to the first agrarian settlements has been defined by a vital link between food and community. They're inseparable. But this connection has weakened: the earliest Mother Gaia mythologies were marginalized as pagan; then the '60's "flower power" and "communal living" were considered "New Age"; and today, if it's local or artisanal, it's for hipsters.

If this all sounds like Hippie talk, you're right! But forget the conspiracies. It's not the "post-war global-industrial-food complex" running a misinformation campaign to discredit the local food movement. It's true that big companies have spent a lot of marketing dollars "speaking" for the general public, but ultimately we consumers are voting these ideas forward with every purchase.

What were once staples of daily living in our communities -- butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and greengrocers -- are now seen as inefficient when large chain grocery stores deliver all-in-one convenience.

But "fast and convenient" has weakened our communities. As the African proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." Big food corporations want to grow fast so they go alone. But for our local communities to go far, we must go together. And homegrown businesses are a critical link for a strong, vibrant, healthy community; nowhere is this more prevalent than our local food economy.

The scale of efficiencies in the modern food economy are driven by lean manufacturing practices, low-cost packaging, targeted marketing, and supply chain management to the big boxes that sell it. By shopping at Big Box chains, we try to figuratively stretch our dollars further but end up literally stretching ourselves (obesity) and our communities (food deserts) to unhealthy breaking points.

These stretched dollars actually leave our local communities destined for a public company balance sheet. Conversely, a dollar spent at a local business circulates 2.5 times within the community in the form of profits, jobs, and charities.

I experienced this effect first-hand playing little league at Little Mountain -- our sports teams were (and still are) sponsored by neighbourhood businesses like Windsor Meats and Listo and organizations like Eagles and Lions.

No big boxes supported us (or do today) even though some are clearly making more profits on sporting equipment than Abbie's, our neighbourhood sports store and the league's biggest sponsor. Community reciprocity matters. If we want neighborhood businesses to be supportive of our activities we need to support them with our buying decisions.

This isn't big-box bashing. A focus on enriching community does not have to come at the expense of capitalism or profits or size. At Foodee, we intend to grow into a much bigger company than we are today. Our sole focus is partnering with local, owner-operated restaurants to help expand their business into the office food market. We plan to be in every North American city center, and to support the local community in each.

At Tacofino, we'd like to continue to expand so we consider what the neighbourhood needs from us as a business and member of the community. Our newest neighbourhood, Yaletown, has young workers by day with no lunch options under $10, so we tailored the concept. We also sponsored the annual fundraiser for Yaletown House, a non-profit care facility for seniors with complex care.

There is some evidence that big chains are catching on. Last month's Huffington Post article Costco Is Selling So Much Organic Produce, Farmers Can't Keep Up details the retail giant crossing the $4B mark, which makes it the nation's largest organics retailer; there is a willingness of big stores to embrace the changing tides. Organic is not the same as local, but consider how "hippy" the fringe organics market was just a decade ago.

The public has been educated on the benefits -- partly personal and partly environmental -- of eating organic vs. traditional: pesticides cause cancer. The benefits are more clearly visible than they are for buying local. When we start voting with our dollars in the same way for local suppliers, we can expect to see them at big boxes as well. Shopping and eating locally, supporting local farmers, growers, your local butcher, baker, and markets contributes to the health of our communities not just to each of us physically, but also economically.

Creating a dynamic local food culture fosters a more self-reliant economy. Communities are more sustainable and resilient by expanding and better integrating local food production, processing, distribution, and consumption. Beyond the immediate stakeholders, the conversation around the vitality of local food is growing. As part of the Local Food Act, in 2013 the Government of Ontario published their first annual Local Food Report, in order to "chart our progress in bringing local food to more tables across the province."

Two key highlights in the report included:
• Under the Local Food Strategy, the government created the Local Food Fund to support innovative projects that will expand markets for local food and strengthen the economy. The fund has invested more than $22 million to increase the demand for and sale of local food around Ontario.
• Ontario was the first province in Canada to introduce a tax credit for farmers who donate agricultural products to community food programs, such as food banks. This created more opportunity to access fresh, local foods.

These types of initiatives drive meaningful connection between the local food economy and our communities. The buy local movement is now beyond fad. Last year's, Slow Money conference, organized by Rory Holland, was such a success it led to a group of us founding the Knives and Forks Investment Co-op, BC's first locally supported investment club. K&F follows Slow Money principles -- investment capital is used as the foundation for economic sustainability and community resilience -- to invest micro-loans in local food business.

We support the notion that true triple bottom line (people, profit, planet) businesses will be the economic engines of our future. The fund was created with the support of Vancity Credit Union alongside their mandate to support their local community - another example of how Vancity walks the talk when it comes to their slogan "Making Good Money".

Like any ecosystem, each community is home to rich diversity: bold flavours, colourful characters, unique fragrances, and special nooks & crannies. This diversity is a delicate balance and we are at risk of losing these peculiarities if we favour "everything always available for cheap." Buying local has real benefits.

In my community, we're fortunate to have strong advocates like LocoBC lobbying the government and educating business owners and communities about the benefits of purchasing locally. This has led to a healthy public dialogue with policy-makers. So what role do you think local business plays in enriching your neighbourhood? I invite you to the discussion; to figure out together what we make of this world, and what is to become of it.

Join us Tuesday, June 7th at Tacofino Venables for a moderated panel discussion: "The Future of Independent Business in Vancouver."

For details, visit: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/first-tuesday-with-tacofino-tickets-21468260144

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