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.”