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Grocers jump on 'local' produce bandwagon

By Laura Vozzella

Article from The Baltimore Sun

Signs atop the produce case in Baltimore-area Safeway stores promoted "local" apples from Virginia and New Jersey. But the Granny Smiths and galas in the case hailed from Chile and New Zealand.

Under a cute farm-truck mural and the words "Home Grown," Wegmans in Hunt Valley offered eggplants grown so far away - the Netherlands - that their stickers were in French: "Aubergine." Also in that produce case: white asparagus from Peru, bell peppers from Canada - and, yes, some zucchini and yellow squash grown in the United States.

No wonder shoppers are confused. Large grocery chains, eager to get a bite of the locavore movement, are promoting produce from nearby farms - even when they have little in stock. It doesn't help that the federal government allows produce to be labeled "local" if it comes from within a 400-mile radius, which for Baltimore is roughly an arc that runs from Boston to Charleston, W.Va., to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

"It's an arms race in marketing," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer group that fought for country-of-origin labeling on produce. "Every time consumers really respond to something, whether it's organic or sustainable or local, the marketers try to capture that and apply it to more and more products, even if it's not necessarily deserved."

Influenced by food-contamination scares and books such as The Omnivore's Dilemma that rail against industrial farming, many consumers are convinced that locally grown food is safer, fresher and better for the environment. So they've been flocking to farmers' markets or ordering produce directly from local farms.

Now, conventional supermarkets are trying to lure them back.

Retailers say their local push is sincere, if somewhat hampered by distribution systems that favor the efficiencies of big farms and the corporate habits of big grocery chains.

They also must balance the demands of thousands of shoppers - those pushing for seasonal eating and those who want out-of-season produce.

"There are challenges," said Wegmans spokeswoman Jeanne Colleluori. "If one particular grower isn't going to be able to provide all the corn we need, we have to go to multiple growers. If we still can't get enough locally, we'll go outside the circle."

Consumer groups fear that just as agribusiness appropriated the term "organic," applying it in some cases to food raised on factory farms, the supermarket chains are trying to adopt the "local" label in name only. Source globally, market locally.

Shoppers, meanwhile, have to choose carefully if they really want local produce.

Habeeb Abdussalaam, a 61-year-old insurance broker from Windsor Mill who believes strongly in the need to preserve area farms, was shopping at Catonsville's Safeway recently and was pleased to see the store promoting local produce. "I see that says New Jersey," he said approvingly, looking at the sign on the apple case.

But a closer look at stickers on the apples showed that they came from farms thousands of miles away. "That's unfortunate," he said. "Just tell it like it is."

Even when grocers source locally, they market nationally. Safeway rolled out its "Locally Grown" campaign in mid-June - a perfect time to highlight local produce in California, where the chain is based. But that was a little early for Mid-Atlantic stores, which were instructed to have their signage and display cases up just the same, said Greg TenEyck, a Safeway spokesman based in Lanham.

"We're not trying to mislead," he said. "It's about being in compliance with a corporate marketing program. It's very regimented."

That explains why, just inside the front doors of the Catonsville Safeway last week, under a sign that reads "Locally Grown. Picked at its Peak," sat green grapes from Mexico, organic blueberries from California and Dole bananas whose origin was unspecified. Truly local offerings included New Jersey squash and blueberries, Pennsylvania mushrooms and Virginia green beans.

A bounty of local corn, watermelons and peaches will arrive in Maryland stores in the next few weeks, TenEyck said. Small, color-coded signs for individual produce items will make clear what's local.

"There will be lots of local produce," he said. "Right now, not so much."

It was easier to distinguish local produce from the rest at Whole Foods. The store in Mount Washington marked individual items with signs - "Good Stuff from Around Here" - that not only specified the farm where it was grown, but also stated how far the farm was from the store.

Organic beets, kale, rainbow chard, collard greens and cucumbers all came from Lady Moon Farms in Chambersburg, Pa. ("113 miles from here!") Basil from Sun Agua Farms in Dalton, Pa. ("207 miles from here!") Salsa and white queso dip from Maggie's in Charleston, W.Va. ("371 miles from here!").

Whole Foods still stocks lots of far-flung produce: mangoes from Mexico, bananas from Colombia, pineapples from Costa Rica. And there's no handy little sign disclosing how many the miles the New Zealand Granny Smiths traveled to Baltimore. But the country of origin was posted, in large print, on signs for each item.

At the Giant store in Hunt Valley, local produce was highlighted in a low-key manner. On a wipe board in black marking pen, the store listed "Locally Grown, Fresh from the Farm" veggies: green squash, yellow squash, green peppers, green cabbage, and red leaf and green leaf lettuces. The items were mixed on the shelves with other veggies.

"The challenge is that it's a global economy," said Giant Food spokeswoman Jamie Miller. "Many times, from a seasonal standpoint, we can't get some items and continue to source produce on a global basis. But we continue to work with local growers."

At the Super Fresh in downtown Baltimore, the emphasis was on organic rather than local. The store highlighted organic suppliers such as California-based Driscoll's, with photos of the farmers and bios that did nothing to soft-pedal their remote addresses.

Super Fresh's strategy aside, local is the new organic, according to research findings presented last month at a U.S. Department of Agriculture conference in Washington..

"Local is doing better than organic," said Amanda Behrens of Johns Hopkins University's Center for a Livable Future, which deals with sustainability issues. Behrens, manager of the center's Eating for the Future project, attended the conference. "Which is all the more reason to be really clear about what we mean.

"One of the things everyone talked about [at the conference] is the demand outweighs supply. The supermarkets can't get enough local produce, even when it's in season."

Part of the problem is logistics. Supermarkets are used to dealing with large suppliers, not lots of little ones.

"A certain number of [local] farmers could supply all the lettuce or apples, but if they're not grouping those together before they get to the supermarket back door ... you're going to have 30 farmers trying to offload their produce," said Rebecca Klein, director of the Agriculture and Public Health Policy project at the Center for a Livable Future.

One of the local farms Safeway promotes is Sunny Valley of Glassboro, N.J. That's Sunny Valley International, which represents about 10 blueberry growers and eight peach growers across the state.

The growers picked their first peaches of the season on June 30, so it came as a surprise to Bob Von Rohr, director of marketing for Sunny Valley, that Safeway last week was touting Jersey peaches - on signs directly above South Carolina peaches. "I wish they would represent the true point of origin," he said, adding, "I don't think it's done intentionally."

Overall, he's pleased that supermarkets are promoting local produce, so people don't have to stop at roadside stands or farmers' markets to buy it. Even farm stands are suspect, he noted.

Von Rohr recalled pulling over at a produce stand on his way to the New Jersey shore early last summer. "They had a big sign up, 'Fresh locally grown peaches,' " he said.

But he knew it was too early for Jersey peaches, so he quizzed the teen-ager minding the stand. "I said, 'Are you sure these are Jersey peaches?' He said, 'Yeah, pretty sure.' "

 

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