Thursday, January 8, 2009

Of carrots and cars, cabbages and community

Stick with me on this one. It’s a little convoluted, but I’ll get there eventually.

“Buy the cars your neighbours help to build”

You saw this slogan a lot in Windsor and Detroit around 1980. The auto industry was in trouble (sound familiar?), and you drove foreign at your peril, particularly if you worked at one of the plants. And our neighbours did work in the plants. Ford, GM and Chrysler were all represented on our street, and many of those who weren't employed by the Big 3 worked at one of the many factories that supported them. When things got bad for the auto industry everyone felt it.

And in the eighties things got quite bad. Ghost towns of unsold cars, trucks and vans started appearing. Parking lots that were generally empty were suddenly full, but not with the cars of new customers. An abandoned drag racing track outside of town was pressed into storage service. Row after row of shiny new cars sat on the weedy track between farmers’ fields. It began to look like they’d be there until they rusted away. We had visible evidence of what happens when consumer choices don’t support local industries.

The backlog of unsold vehicles seemed to grow unchecked, and just when it seemed like they’d run out of space to hold them, production stopped. The plants closed. Our friends were laid off. My dad was laid off. No one new when or if they would be called back to work.

“Buy the cars your neighbours help to build.”

I’m sure that ad campaign was only a small part of the solution. Eventually cars began to sell again. The automotive ghost towns faded away. People went back to work. It was back to business as usual. For the longest time you didn’t see many of foreign cars on the road in Windsor. I’m sure there were lots of reasons for that too, but my first car was a Chrysler, as was my second. I learned to drive in a Dodge Omni. That slogan was in my mind when we bought our first non-North American car two years ago. I still have trouble admitting that I drive a foreign car when we visit friends and family in Windsor. Not that there are many of them working in the auto industry any more. Now there’s something to feel guilty about as I toodle around town in my Toyota!

In spite of appearances, this post isn’t about my guilt, or even about cars. It’s about advertising, and it’s about community. I’ve been reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. In it she talks about the billions spent in advertising to sell fast and processed foods. She also points out the difficulties of selling to consumers whose “highest food-shopping priority is the lowest price” in this environment. She tells us that the advantages of responsibly grown local food can’t “fit in a five-syllable jingle”. True, but as we realize once again the value of spending our dollars in a way that supports our economy, and in a manner that keeps ourselves and our friends and family employed, why don’t we borrow the slogan that once worked for the auto-industry? I think “Buy the food your neighbours helped to grow” has a wonderful ring to it. More than five syllables, but I think that even those of us with limited attention spans can handle it.

There are so many advantages to buying local foods. Locally grown produce generally tastes better, as it was likely picked when ripe rather than picked when best for shipping. Odds are the food will also be better for you. Antioxidants and phytonutrients tend to be a their peak in properly ripened foods. I don’t think ripening in a truck on a cross-country journey counts as being “properly ripened”. And less travel equals less fuel used. Do I really need to point out the advantages of using less fuel?

I know, you’re likely tired of being bombarded by messages telling you how to improve your health and save the environment. I get that way too. There are times when I feel so overwhelmed that it’s hard to make the right choice. There are times when I drive when I should walk. There are times when I want the damn oranges no matter how far they have travelled. Sometimes it’s just too much. I can’t fix things by myself, and the impact of my choices isn’t apparent enough to make it seem worth the effort. So I buy the oranges, and I take the car to the corner store to buy highly processed snacks that have been shipped from who knows where. It’s easy to feel lost in the big picture. So think small. Think about how your decisions will impact your friends, you family, your neighbours, your community. Sometimes I think if you do that the big picture will take care of itself.

And yes, I realize there are people who live in urban areas where it’s hard to think of a farm as being part of the community. I’ve had the mixed blessing of living close to farms all my life - wonderful when I can get fresh strawberries - not so wonderful when the wind shifts while they’re fertilizing. And I know there are seasons where there’s just not much local food available. So expand your idea of local. If you can’t find something from your community, how about from your county, your province, your country. There are benefits of each, and you’ll keep your dollars close to home where they're more likely to come back to you in one form or another. Given the country’s current economic situation that sounds good to me.

Buy the foods your neighbours help to grow.

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