Last week we gave you tips for asking questions at farms and farmers’ markets so you can find the best food for you and your family. This week we continue with information you need to shop at stores and restaurants.
Because the vast majority of stores buy their food from distributors, they’ll be less likely to know as much about the food as the farmer does. But don’t let that stop you! Don’t forget that your questions are sending a message up the supply and distribution line. If we all start asking for something, we will greatly increase our chances of getting it.
I often use my mother as an example when I’m speaking. She’s not an activist or a foodie, but she wants what she wants. She happens to know the owners of a dairy in Lewes, Delaware, which is very close to where she lives in Rehoboth Beach, and she loves their milk. She went into her usual grocery store and asked the manager if he would start selling some of their products. He said no. She went back a week later and asked again. He agreed to sell a couple of containers of milk, which quickly sold out. I was just down visiting and went to buy milk for my parents and saw that Lewes Dairy now has several shelves of milk on display in the milk section, and people were literally grabbing it up while I was there.
When my mother told the dairy owners what she’d done, they said they’d been trying for years to get their milk sold locally. And it only took one customer asking two questions to change the milk supply in the Rehoboth Beach area.
So if you have a favorite local sustainable food item that you don’t see in your grocery store, ask the manager to stock it. You could even go so far as to find a suitable farmer to supply the product to the store. A word of advice, though – if you are going to get a store to stock a particular item, please make sure you purchase it. Grocery stores work on slim profit margins and shelf space is limited, so make sure you really want what you’re asking them to stock.
If you’re unsure about meat, poultry and dairy items sold in the store, download Sustainable Table’s Questions for a Store Manager, Meat Manager and/or Butcher (which includes answers also). It supplies questions like, “Do you know how the animals were raised?” You can also download Questions for a Farmer and see if the store is able to answer them.
If the store manager or butcher doesn’t know the answers to your questions, ask them to ask the distributor. The same applies to vegetables – talk with the produce manager about where the fruits and vegetables come from. Ask if any are grown locally. I was pleasantly surprised when shopping in Decherd, Tennessee, last year. I asked the very young produce employee if any of the food was raised locally, and he went through the whole produce section and pointed out which was grown close by, which was from Tennessee, and which was from other nearby states like Georgia. If the employees at your store can’t answer these questions, just keep asking until they find out. You may be surprised, though, at the depth of knowledge store employees have these days.