By Margaret Badore for DietsInReview.com
Last fall Wal-Mart announced their plans to increase the amount of local produce sold in their stores across the United States. The decision was arguably one of the most visible indications that the local food movement has hit the mainstream, gaining followers for both economic and environmental reasons. Yet it is necessary to approach such an announcement with a dose of skepticism when it comes from a company that seems to be driven so heavily by the bottom line. Is this a case of green-washing?
Critics say Wal-Mart’s new policy to promote local food was little more than a marketing scheme, and have accused the company of re-labeling products that were already procured locally. However, a recent Wall Street Journal article reports Wal-Mart says that the consumer demand for local produce is aligned with cost-savings objectives. Wal-Mart, like many other national chains, says money can be saved on transportation by purchasing food near its point of sale and also cut down on waste due to food spoilage. In a press release, the company announced that they hope to source up to nine percent of all produce locally.
Many grocery stores also spotlight their local produce, although the definition of “local” varies from store to store, just as it might vary from person to person. Here is a look at how some of the major grocery chains defined local produce.
- A&P: Grown within New York and New Jersey, according to a company representative
- Kroger (and subsidiaries): The term “local” can refer to produce grown in the same state or region
- Safeway: Produce is only local if it can reach the store in less than an eight hour drive
- Sweetbay Super Market: Within the state (all stores are located in Florida)
- Publix: Local produce comes from the five states within which the stores are located (Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina and Alabama)
- Wal-Mart: Grown within 450 miles of distribution centers, but only fruits and vegetables will be highlighted as local if they come from the state in which they are sold
- Whole Foods: Must be able to reach the store within seven hours by car or truck
- Wegmans: At least within the state
An important goal of the local food movement is about increasing the transparency of food systems: consumers want to know where their food comes from. I was surprised to find many grocery stores express a dedication to local produce, yet fail to qualify these statements. For example, Wegmans has a website page dedicated to explaining the importance of food miles, yet offers no hard definition for what the maximum number of food miles is acceptable for a food to be labeled “locally grown.” On the other hand, Wegmans has a twitter account dedicated to tweeting out the arrival of local produce to their stores (@WegmansLocal), often indicating where the food is coming from. A tweet at this account provided me with the definition listed above.
Hannaford is another example: their site features stories from local farmers and an interactive map of farmers and producers, but no hard definition of what qualifies as “local.”
However, these definitions seem very reasonable for the term local. Of course, defining local as “within the same state” is a kind of common-sense definition that is obviously more useful in smaller, East Coast states, whereas defining “local” within a certain mile-radius leaves less room for debate. Kroger’s definition sounds the most vague, but it also has many different subsidiary chains. It should also be noted that although this list is not comprehensive, some grocery stores could not be included because they do not have a local produce policy whatsoever, such as Aldi and Target.
Once I began researching definitions and talking to grocery store representatives, I quickly became very aware of the challenges facing store managers that wish to stock their shelves with local produce. “Customers have grown to expect products year-round,” explains Maria Brous, the Director of Media & Community Relations for Publix. She explains that Publix strives to stock produce from their five states of operation first, but that this simply isn’t always possible while also providing customers with a diversity of fresh produce. “Product is not available year-round in the same place, and sometimes product is not available in a certain area at all.”
Even the grocery stores that are the most dedicated to locally grown produce find it challenging to source exclusively from local farms. Ellwood’s Thompson’s Market, an independent grocery store in Richmond, Virginia, works to buy their produce from within a 100-mile radius of the store. “Eighty percent of our greens and things might be local for two weeks,” say Paige Bishop. “But then all of a sudden they’re sold out of that crop and then we’re sourcing some things organically instead of locally.”
Although local produce may only represent a fraction of the nation’s grocery purchases, benefit to the local economies can be significant. Independent We Stand, a movement of small business owners who support buying local, has calculated that if every family in Wichita, KS spent $10.00 at a local business, over $19,000,000 would be re-invested into the local economy (learn more about their economic impact calculator). “The more that you buy local, the more that money is going back into the community,” says Bishop.