Buying local vs. buying charity

Kevin Yarr

By Kevin Yarr, CBCNews.ca

It was a hard decision faced by Co-op Atlantic a couple of weeks ago. All year long the grocery store chain had been running 50-50 draws with its members to raise money for what would be a very generous donation to the CBC P.E.I. Turkey Drive. Just over 600 turkeys plus vegetables, roasting pans, stuffing: an impressive feed for hundreds of Islanders who might otherwise have gone without.

There was a small glitch: the Co-op slogan, "Our choice is Atlantic First." Many people shop at the Co-op to support farmers in the region, but for this donation to feed as many families as possible, the Co-op would have to buy turkeys raised in Manitoba.

The Co-op donation made for a dramatic first day of CBC P.E.I.'s Turkey Drive. (CBC)

It was not a little difference, about 80 cents a pound, enough to buy about 200 more turkeys. The Co-op decided in this case it would not follow its buy local policy.

And then a local turkey farmer expressed disappointment that he was not asked to fill the order.

A lot of people got very, very upset when CBC News turned this into a news story. Island Morning, P.E.I.'s radio morning show, received calls expressing their anger that the donation had been called into question.

"I thought it was very mean-spirited," said one caller. "I think you're being rather hard on the Co-op," said another.

Commenters on the web site were more direct in their attacks on the CBC.

"SHAME ON CBC," wrote one.

"This is your campaign. You asked Islanders to open their hearts & wallets, & thank them by stabbing them in the back for their generosity for the sake of a story."

Let me say first that while it seems to me the Co-op faced a conundrum here, they absolutely made the right decision. I believe it would have been wrong to buy 200 fewer turkeys for charity for the sake of buying local. I would no more criticize the Co-op for this decision than I would berate a pensioner in a Charlottetown supermarket for buying a turkey from the United States.

And yet when radio reporter Laura Chapin researched this story for radio, I made the decision to write it up for CBCNews.ca.

What is unfortunately lost in this debate is the question itself. For the sake of argument, let's take it as a given that buying local is a good thing. Let's also assume that buying turkeys for needy families at Christmas is a good thing. Now, what do you do when faced with choosing between the two?

That, for me, is the interest in this story.

I have expressed my own frustration with international food marketing in Food Bytes before. My point, then and now, is that there is more to buying food than just looking at the price. Part of the reason people on P.E.I. are in financial difficulty is that people can and do buy inexpensive products made, grown and raised in other parts of the world.

There are broader implications, and there are circumstances when buying local is the right choice. As one commenter wrote, "If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, whereas if you TEACH a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime." Not an original thought, certainly, but perhaps an original application of the idea.

But we do need to keep in mind in this strange world of international trade that buying local is a luxury, and not always appropriate.

Do you think Co-op made the right decision?