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Local movement offers opportunities and challenges

At the United Fresh convention in Chicago, a panel of experts on the buy side addressed the local food movement with Bill Pool of Wegman’s Food Markets Inc., summing up the tone of the debate: The opportunities outweigh the obstacles, but there are obstacles.

Pool, who is manager of produce safety for that Rochester, NY-based chain, was joined on the panel by David McInerney, co-founder of Fresh Direct, and Kathleen Phillips, supply chain sustainability manager for Pro*Act LLC.

Wegman’s has had a concerted locally grown food movement in place since the 1980s, but Pool argues that buying locally grown produce is not new and it dates back to when the chain started as a push cart vendor in 1916. About 30 years ago, Wegman’s started featuring locally grown product in its promotions and started a program that today allows direct farmer-to-store sales.

In fact, he said the best thing he and the corporate produce staff can do “is get out of the way” and let each store manager become the produce buyer for their local products. But in reality, the corporate produce department has established protocols that need to be followed, and there is lots of prep work that has to be taken care of.

In the first place, Pool said every supplier has to be GAP-certified. In 2005, Wegman’s began working with its local suppliers conducting GAP-training classes to bring growers together with educators. The chain has continued this program and enlisted the aid of food-safety experts from the land grant universities in the regions in which they operate. The cantaloupe/listeria situation in 2011 put compliance with GAP certification on a fast track, and as of 2013 the chain will not buy from any grower that doesn’t have that stamp of approval. Wegman’s does have a program in place to reimburse small growers $500 for their GAP-certification efforts.

One of the keys that has allowed the retailer and its individual store managers to participate in the program is an Internet-based accounting system. That started in 2002 and each grower has to have access to a computer to participate in the program. That allows invoicing to be automatic and quick, which is a big plus for many of these small growers.

McInerney, who was once a chef, launched his direct-to-consumer, Internet-based grocery company about a decade ago. Based in New York City, it delivers groceries to consumers on a daily basis. Since its launch in 2002, McInerney told the United Fresh crowd, the company has made 20 million deliveries.

The firm is experiencing significant growth and McInerney said locally produced food and organic offerings are driving that growth. The company is constantly surveying the attitudes of its customers, and he said 82 percent say they do care where there food comes from.

For this online retailer the focus is on perishables, and the firm tries to locally source its produce, seafood and meat when they are in season. McInerney said consumers are looking for taste and information and that is why he said the local movement is not a fad but just an everyday part of business. For FreshDirect, the key is transparency. The firm’s website, which is where its consumers shop, is full of information about the products and the supplier, whether it is Driscoll's or a local strawberry grower.

McInenery said obviously the biggest problem with a locally grown program “is what do you do the other eight months of the year?” Equally challenging is that FreshDirect does not want to ignore the suppliers who keep the firm in product for the majority of the year, when the local product is in season. So he offers his customers choices. The site explains where the produce comes from and his shoppers choose what they want.

Pro*Act also has a locally grown effort as part of its seed to fork sustainability program, but Phillips said there are many challenges. The company supplies restaurant chains that are usually looking for consistent supply of the same product across a region.

But she said Pro*Act has developed a distributors’ network system that gives local growers access to a wider range of buyers. The firm does require third-party audits by all of its suppliers and does offer financial assistance so smaller growers can be in compliance without too much of a burden.

Phillips said the allure of a locally-grown product is that consumers do want the connection to the food they buy. They want to know where the farm is and the story behind it. When engaging in a promotion with a locally grown product, Pro*Act uses table-side promotion pieces to tell that farmer’s story as well as the social media sites.

While it’s challenging, she said, “consumers want a connection to place” and she predicted “an exponential growth in the future” of the locally sourced product.

In a question-and-answer period that followed, each of the panelists gave a different view as to what local is. “Local is in the eye of the beholder,” said Pool of Wegmen’s. “In Rochester, most people would identify local as five to 10 miles away. I can’t get away with promoting Hudson Valley apples (250 miles away) as local to our customers in Rochester.”

But he said the Jersey Fresh program can be promoted to any store within the confines of that states, and even in the surrounding states, as locally produced product.

Pro*Act defines local as anything within a seven hour truck drive, which can be as far as 500 miles away. But Phillips agreed that it means different things to different people. In Rhode Island, she said, local means grown in Rhode Island. There are very few farms in Rhode Island and the state measures 48 miles by 37 miles at its longest and widest points.

FreshDirect considers local to be within 300 miles, but McInerney said he does not concern himself too much with that locally grown moniker as that firm’s philosophy is to let the consumer know. If the farm is 500 miles away from New York City, tell the shopper and he or she can decide if they want the product. The company also uses a rating system on its produce, giving each product one to five stars for taste and quality. He indicated that the rating system as much as anything else drives sales.