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Grocery Stores Promote Locally Grown Food

posted on February 28, 2003

Admittedly, that's a thin slice of the American food market. Barely 3 percent of the nation's two million farmers sell even some of what they grow directly to consumers.

Still, the success of farmers markets is spawning an effort on both sides of the counter to replicate and expand the experience. Farmers, consumers, and some non-traditional middlemen are seeking to develop stronger local food systems. Sid Sprecher explains.


Grocery Stores Promote Locally Grown Food

Slug store demo: "This is our fresh squeezed apple juice from up in Hood River."

This is apple fest at The New Seasons Markets store in Portland's Concordia neighborhood. The store, formerly the urban site of a large retail chain, was empty for seven years. New Seasons was actively solicited by Concordia neighborhood groups to rehab the site. By all accounts the effort has been successful. New Seasons is one of a chain of four stores in Portland that emphasizes a new approach to food retailing. One of the company's core values is to purvey as much food as possible from local sources. One hundred percent of the red meat comes from Oregon. Seventy to 80 percent of the store's produce in season is from the state.

As New Seasons CEO Brian Rohter explains, it is store policy to identify the origin of all the produce. New Seasons CEO Brian Rohter: "The incremental costs are minimal and the return on the investment is fantastic because here in Portland Oregon, customers want to support local growers."

The apple fest features a tasting of more than 25 apple varieties, all grown within the region. Growers like Ron Stewart, owner of Columbia Gorge Organic Orchards is there to meet hundreds of the store's typical Saturday crowd. The event is going well on multiple levels.

The small chain sells both conventional and organic produce and products. It spurns the typical coupons and retail specials in favor of educational events and service. The stores employ far more than a typical food retailer. And it views its employees as critical to the company effort to reach and service both its customers and local growers.

Ron Stewart, Columbia Gorge Organic: "Our whole concept of growing food is not to be commodity growers and to try to sell a large quantity of small varieties – let's put it this way, a small quantity of many varieties to the local market."

The efforts of New Seasons employees are essential to the fortunes of growers like Ron Stewart. New Seasons markets about a fourth of the fruit and juice produced by Stewart's Columbia Gorge Organic Orchards. He credits the profitable relationship to the store's produce manger, Jeff Fairchild.

Ron Stewart, Columbia Gorge Organic: "Jeff is in constant contact with the day to day basis what's going on at this farm. If we don't talk to him today, we'll talk with him tomorrow."

Jeff Fairchild, Produce Mgr., New Seasons Markets: "Customers can come in and look for special apples and they also realize that we're apple specialists."

While New Seasons etches its identity by raising the profile of local food producers, another organization is attempting to do the same thing through branding. The Food Alliance was established 5 years ago to provide a marketing identity to local farmers who employed practices that were environmentally, socially and economically sustainable.

Paul Widerburg is produce manager at Lamb's Thriftway, a conventional food market in suburban Portland. He appreciates the marketing efforts of the Alliance to facilitate the sale of locally grown produce. Currently, he estimates as much of 30 percent of what he sells is grown in the state. The Alliance, he says, brings farmers to him and that has made a significant difference to his bottom line.

. Paul Widerburg, Produce Mgr., Lamb's Thriftway: "A good example is the berry farmer. I never bought from him. They brought him to me and instead of carrying four kinds of berries, I now carry 12 kinds of berries because he's an incredible farmer. I carry yellow raspberries and loganberries and red currents and black currents and they sell. It's drastically increased my sales."

The alliance also is making a mark in another venue. Portland State University is now a partner with the organization. Functionally, that means Alliance labeled food is a purchasing priority for the university. The school's dining hall displays the relationship prominently. Its executive chef says the affiliation is a response to the expectations of the university community.

Andy Goldstein, Exec. Chef Portland State University: "On this campus here, there's a great deal of emphasis put on supporting local growers and local products in general and we'd be foolish not to pay attention to what our clientele is asking for. So it works for everybody. "

University dining halls are seen as important targets of opportunity for the local food movement.

Gary Valen, Glywood Center: "This is a phenomenon that is sweeping the country and it's not only college cafeterias, it's restaurants, it's food markets, it's eaters everywhere and I feel what a glorious moment this is for this movement.

At this Seattle conference on community supported agriculture, local food movement activists in addition to consuming a lot of locally grown food, identified non-profit institutions as building blocks in the development of local food systems.

The socially conscious institutions are keenly aware that they offer local farmers a solid niche market. School officials point to the economic benefit of keeping more dollars closer to home.

At the University of Northern Iowa parent's weekend, Moms and Dads are treated to an all Iowa brunch. The university has been attempting to secure more of its food from local sources. It is an effort that is being embraced at colleges all across the country. And in many instances, the niche has widened. Next week a look at how the local food movement has spread from colleges to other institutions to private sector restaurants ranging from high end white table cloth establishments to more plebian eateries.

For Market to Market, I'm Sid Sprecher.


Tags: agriculture food groceries local food news