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?
“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…