No frills, but plenty of multiculturalism

Food and multiculturalism at No Frills in CanadaWhile I was ranting about $8 chocolate bars yesterday, I got to thinking about No Frills, where we get a lot of our groceries. What Canadian doesn’t like to rave about our open-minded multiculturalism, and especially the eating part? It’s easier than trying to dissect international politics, or talk critically about the ways in which multiculturalism has failed us, or marvel at the many times you’ve been ferried around in a taxi by someone with more degrees than you. Instead, we prefer to just keep spilling ink on our ethnic restaurants and hole-in-the-wall shops with shelves stuffed with obscure goods from every corner of the world.

Received wisdom these days says that oversized big-box stores are bad. Farmers’ markets are good. The result is that we don’t talk much about stores like No Frills (for my non-Canadian readers, No Frills is your basic, big-box supermarket). And personally, I’m fascinated by No Frills. I probably shouldn’t admit that in public, especially as someone who volunteers for my local farmers’ market. But I can’t help it. No Frills is a behemoth (there are 14 in metro Toronto alone), and thinking about its role in feeding the city is far more complex than it is to simply cheer on the farmers’ markets springing up on every corner. Those too have come under fire recently, for pulling food and farmers away from their local communities and into the city, with its more upscale and wallet-happy consumers.

No Frills is an unfailingly diverse shopping experience. If you want multicultural Toronto, skip the sustainable options and go hang out at the No Frills. The last time I was in Edmonton, I noticed the same thing at the Superstore (No Frills’ middlebrow cousin and also part of the Loblaws franchise). I stopped and stared for a few minutes at the endless stream of shoppers entering from a parking lot that is itself the size of a small shopping centre. Every colour, every socioeconomic class, every age group. It felt like the entire city had streamed past me in just those few minutes. It was entirely demoralizing and entirely uplifting at the same time.

And why not shop at No Frills? Have you looked at what’s available on their shelves? You want a Mexican meal tonight and Portuguese tomorrow night? Head on over to No Frills. Here’s a sample of items in my current No Frills flyer:

  • Suraj brand chick peas
  • Halal chicken and goat
  • Shimla Moghulai naan
  • Cedar brand green and black olives

When Superstore first opened in Edmonton, the excitement in my family was something to behold. I would imagine it was something akin to what bringing home a clandestine bit of meat would have been like back in the USSR. Suddenly, a world of food opened up to us. And instead of seeking out every obscure deli and shop in the city, it was all available just minutes from home under one large, glaring yellow roof. It may not have been as personal or cutesy or fulfilling a shopping experience. And yes, it took business away from smaller mom-and-pops. But it also brought the entire world under one roof. It was cheaper. It was accessible, which meant it also took up less of our time (and by our, I mean my parents’), which freed up time for many other things.

And that’s why Superstore and No Frills and the like keep winning. Time and time again.

When I say winning, I mean just that. As much as I love and support the farmers’ markets, when I see the number of people, and their diversity, walking into a No Frills on any given day, I am overwhelmed. How do you compete with that? Can you? And can you really tell someone who spends their days working to better their family, after escaping from who-knows-what-and-where, that they should spend more money on groceries? Some day, it seems like a losing battle.

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