Thursday, August 9, 2007

It Makes Me Want to Ralph

Lately I've been attempting to do my part to eat foods that are grown or produced locally. I'm not perfect, but I'm slowly catching on. I try to remember to bring my own cloth bags to the store. I shop at my neighborhood farmer's market each week, shop at grocery stores that offer local or organic options, and so on. If you're reading this, you probably know what I'm talking about. Yesterday, I went to Ralph's, which is something I've mostly stopped doing in recent months. I know that Ralph's doesn't carry much of what I'm looking for, but since it's close to my house and on the way home from work, I had a moment of weakness. I stopped in to find something to supplement my dinner. I glanced over to the produce section and saw a huge sign reading something like We are proud to support our local growers and provide our customers with the fruits of their labor. When I say huge, I mean about 2' x 2' with the word local probably 10 inches tall.

Eureka! Hallelujah! Amen! Or so I thought.

I looked at the heirloom tomatoes right under the glorious sign. Grown in Mexico. Avocados...Mexico. Peaches...New Zealand. It went on like this for a while. So I did what any self-righteous, thirty-something in LA might do. I asked the manager. He had no idea, but I could ask someone who worked in produce. Did I want to do that now, he asked in surprise? Well yes, I did.

Anthony, from produce, also did not know. He looked at the sign, looked at me, looked at the sign, looked at the peaches.
Anthony: I don't really know. This stuff just comes in on a truck, you know?
Me: So, you don't know which produce is locally grown?
Anthony: Uh....
Me: So, do you have any produce that's locally grown?
Anthony: I don't think so. I mean, they put that sign up, like, two weeks ago.
Me: Uh huh. Doesn't that mean you might have something that's been locally grown?
Anthony: Um, well, I think they just put that sign up so, you know, so people would know.

Know WHAT? I wanted to shake this nice young man. (I will not get sidetracked now to explain why this interaction defines my philosophy about education, but it does.) Anthony said I could call the produce manager, Lee, tomorrow. I did. Lee did not know of any locally grown produce either. It comes from a warehouse, he said. But I could call this number. I did, and I found that it was the wrong number (for employees of Ralph's only). Was Lee trying to throw me off the scent of locally grown produce? I could not be deterred! I shook my fist in the air and called 1-888-437-3496 (hint hint) to speak to someone at Ralph's customer service center. I was put on hold for two longish exposures to semi-groovy elevator music. I was told the following:
- Ralph's always tries to buy locally (um, yeah right)
- when they cannot serve their customers with local products, they may import them from elsewhere (um, duh)
- There is no list that states "where this potato comes from and where that potato comes from". That's a direct quote.

I said that wasn't good enough. Surely the people at Ralph's who pay for the produce know where it comes from. I want to talk to one of them, I said. If I want to know more than that, I was told, I would have to give up some personal information and hope to be contacted later. Don't worry, if no one calls you back, you can call us again. We'll have a file on you by then, so we'll know who you are. I guess now I am on record with corporate Ralph's as an instigator. My parents will be proud.

So the questions remain. Does Ralph's have any locally grown produce? If so, why doesn't anyone who works there know about it? If not, why do they feel they can post such a stinking lie for all of us to read? And why don't any of the employees care or wonder about this? And are We (capitalized, all of us, society) really allowing this sort of thing? In the two weeks the sign has been there, am I the first to ask? I hope not, but I'm guessing I was. I hope that someone will call me soon to say that Ralph's does indeed carry locally grown produce. I hope that the employees will soon be attending some sort of meeting to educate them on this topic. I hope that the demand for better food sources will sink in and take hold in the big world of agribusiness.

I leave you now to ponder this mess, and I encourage you to do the following:
- Go to your Ralph's. Do they have a similar sign? If so, do they have any locally grown produce? Find out. Allow it to matter to you.
- Ask questions of your food providers to help keep them honest and to let them know what their patrons want.
- If you aren't up on why locally grown produce is a good idea, start reading. Barbara Kingsolver's Animal Vegetable Miracle is a good place to start.
- Check back for updates. If there are any, I'll post them.