Love Hate Relationship

22 Feb

Mmmmm...local. Take note, Trader Joe's.

This week, I’m taking a break from bitching about vegan dietary restrictions to write about something I love: Trader Joe’s.

I love their frozen mac and cheese (more than my own homemade mac and cheese). I love that I can get a decent bottle of wine for less than ten dollars (probably two bottles). I love that they have organic foods at lower prices than what conventional foods cost at the supermarkets. I even love that I’ve had check stand conversations with Hawaiian-shirt-clad staff ranging in topic from how the Miami Hurricanes are doing this year to how amazing the chicken lasagna is (pretty amazing).

But there’s something that I don’t like about Trader Joe’s, and so I decided to write them a letter about it. I don’t usually write consumer letters, not unless something has gone egregiously wrong with my food and I’m gunning for a coupon to make up for it. But I want to make the point that food is a consumer driven industry. Ask and you shall (maybe) receive.

So here is my issue with Joe. By law, your produce — fresh, dried or frozen — should now be labeled with its country of origin. As I’ve been shopping at TJ’s, I’ve begun to notice now that the majority of what I’m buying is produced outside of the US. This bothers me for a few reasons. One: fresh produce should actually be fresh, not sitting on a container ship for a few days on its way from Peru to Long Beach. Two: if I can get local (read in this case, “from the United States”) produce, why would I want produce that comes with a hefty carbon footprint as it’s packed and shipped into this country? And three: buying US produce puts my money back into the hands of local vendors and growers, who are also more likely to pay higher wages to workers.

I wanted to know why Trader Joe’s uses so much outside produce. I appreciate, of course, the fact that they try to keep prices as low as possible, but I don’t believe this should come as a detriment to workers, the planet, or the taste and quality of my food.

An actual real person wrote back to me. Here is an excerpt from her response letter:

“We are aware of people’s concerns with buying local but unfortunately these farmers and suppliers cannot meet our supply and demands. It also seems that most customers who prefer local products aren’t willing to eat seasonally when the produce is available locally. Therefore we seek the produce from the country where it’s in season.”

OK, I have to interrupt to comment here: we live in a state that grows a copious amount of fruits and vegetables year-round. That means quite a bit of produce is available locally all the time. Check where your avocados or strawberries are from, for instance. I see these at the local farmers’ market all year; no need to even leave the SoCal backyard. (Plus, I had to correct both spelling and grammar errors before I posted the above excerpt just to make it readable. Come on Trader Joe’s, this is a response to a customer who took the time to write a letter. Go all out and use the damn spell check.)

More from the letter:

“Please also know that from the time Trader Joe’s began it has always been our mission to bring great quality products from other countries for our customer to experience at an affordable price.”

Alright, I concede this. I understand importing pasta from Italy, but dried apples from New Zealand when the same apples grow an hour away from the store?

And more:

“We will continue with our travels and bringing in quality products from all over the world!”

OK, no need to insult my intelligence…

In any case, this certainly doesn’t just happen at Trader Joe’s. My parents in central Florida go for a walk on the beach every weekend. They can see shrimp boats from the shore. Their supermarket seafood counter carries shrimp from Thailand.

I encourage you to voice your own opinions wherever you buy your food. For example, when shoppers spoke up about Bovine Growth Hormone in milk, both Starbucks and Walmart stopped carrying milk with the hormone. So it’s not just yuppie niche market shops that respond to customer complaints. You spend money there, tell them what you want.

While I’m cartainly not swearing off TJ’s, I’m much more likely to buy my fruits and veggies somewhere else now, as much as I’d like to support the New Zealand apple market and everything…


3 Responses to “Love Hate Relationship”

  1. Nichole April 17, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    I guess I can’t find anything good about buying produce at Trader Joe’s. Let me mention now that I have worked there for five years plus. It started off as a “wow and a discount at the place I spend most of my money- GREAT!” My disdain for their business practices has evolved over the years alongside my growing interest in rethinking consumer wastefulness, catalyzed by the “behind the scenes” experience of working there.
    What I think of when I consider buying some organic strawberries from Trader Joe’s:
    Country of origin? Where did the produce get shipped to for first distribution? Did these berries come from chile on a ship and arrive in some far away US port? In what kind of container/ packaging? Was that reused? Where/ when were they processed and packaged for sale? How are the working conditions? How much resources went into processing (cleaning, sorting, weighing, portioning, labeling & storing until shipping)? Where did it get shipped to for Trader Joe’s to distribute it internally? (Trader Joe’s has “local” warehouses that supply individual stores with daily deliveries of “fresh” product.) How far has the pound of strawberries traveled by now? How zig-zagged is this line if I trace it on a map? How much plastic wrap do they have to put on the pallets so that the cases of product won’t shift in transport? We get these towering piles of product mummified in so much saran wrap. Why don’t we recycle all of this plastic or find another way to ship since we receive very predictable “loads” every day. (You’d faint if you saw how much plastic we just throw in the dumpster every morning.) Why do they have to put 8 to 12 plastic boxes of individual berry products in a cardboard box that doesn’t have any chance for reuse? How many bales of cardboard do we generate weekly from strawberry alone? How much fossil fuel does it take to compact the cardboard into a bale, load it onto a truck by forklift, ship it to a distributor, send it to a recycler, then to actually recycle it into something else? Where does that plastic box go after I put it in my blue LA city recycling bin? How many have I bought in the last year? As rumored, is our plastic getting sent to China on freighters to get recycled there where the toxic emissions from the process aren’t banned?
    The thing that strikes me is the truth of the customer relations rep’s canned (yet still somehow misspelled) response- people still want to buy it and TJ’s wants to make that profit. My guess is that TJ’s actually pays less for the larger carbon footprint product because of currency exchange and cheap foreign labor. Now, the cool thing is that if we buy at our local farmer’s market, we are getting almost wholesale prices, and if we join a CSA, it’s even closer. My new personal challenge is to ponder whether we really HAVE TO HAVE strawberries even when the California crop isn’t available; or when we don’t have time to go to the farmer’s market. Last week I didn’t “get everything I wanted” at the checkout, and I was ok, because I knew that the organic strawberries on the shelf come at such a cost, that I just can’t afford to buy them.

  2. Brent February 23, 2010 at 4:18 pm #

    Produce is a funny business. On one hand, you want to appeal to a market that expects everything to be in season all the time. On the other hand, you want everything to taste its best. On the other other hand (I’m a little different), you want the right price/profit margins that will still keep customers happy.

    Sad to say, those dreams can come true with buying bulk from largely agrarian economies thousands of miles from your local market. The best they can do is maximize space utilization on the container ships, minimize packaging, and time all their deliveries so that the fruit has a chance to be fresh-delivered to you.

    I know Wal-Mart has put out a scorecard system to see how small it can bind its carbon footprint in the products it sells. I think considering how global our marketplace has become, this is an earnest attempt at being friendlier to the shareholders who also happen to think that going green is good for ecology and economy.

    Personally, I prefer local, seasonal, get-it-while-it-lasts shopping. Further, I dream of having a house with windows that open to produce-bearing trees, stalks, and vines. But I admit, sometimes I just want a good grapefruit in August.

  3. Mom February 22, 2010 at 10:22 pm #

    You are so right and nobody could have said it better. I’m printingout a copy to give to my Publix produce manager. i bought hardly any fresh produce this week because it was mostly from Mexico. i bought frozen instead, but I’m really not sure where that came from. By the way, why don’t you send a copy to Trader joe’s?

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