At times it seems like supermarket chains have come full circle. Instead of efficiently merchandising for the betterment of all on a near-national level, supermarkets now are attempting to distinguish themselves by getting back to their roots as the neighborhood merchant who caters to local tastes.
As the summer begins, there is no better example of satisfying local tastes than selling locally grown fresh foods. Steve Smith, president and chief executive officer of K-VA-T Food Stores, called locally grown produce “the new organic in our market.” K-VA-T began sourcing local produce seven years ago. Food City purchases have grown from $500,000 to $6 million in that period. “That is almost 10% of our total produce purchases in buying from local farmers in Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee,” said Smith.
A number of convergent environmental, social and psychological issues are driving demand for locally grown foods, said Susan Porjes, analyst and author of the recently released report, “Local and Fresh Foods in the U.S.” from Packaged Facts. The “go local” movement is reaching critical mass among the public, spurred on by food safety concerns and a backlash to industrial organic food production, she said. Also strengthening the trend is media attention to global warming. “The American public is also becoming aware of the ‘food miles’ concept — that is, how far food travels from the producer to reach the consumer — and, by extension, its environmental impact through energy consumption and pollution. And many consumers just feel that local food is fresher and tastes better.”
The report estimates that locally grown foods, valued at about $5 billion today, could turn into a $7 billion business by 2011.
If locally grown is the new organic — as others, besides Smith, are saying — then what happens to organic, especially as it reaches critical mass at supermarkets? A recent story by John Cloud in Time magazine, “Eating Better Than Organic,” examines the local vs. organic debate and points out that locally grown is not necessarily organic, and that sacrifices may have to be made between produce from the garden, which undeniably contains the freshest-bursting flavors even though a little chemical spray may have been added, or certified organic produce, which is chemical-free but is often shipped over miles, and therefore lacks the freshness and perhaps some of the nutrients of produce direct from the garden.
While sourcing locally has its bucolic appeal, there are challenges to overcome, Porjes told SN. “Whereas retailers can order from large suppliers with the click of a mouse, working with local farmers and suppliers is labor-intensive. Buying local foods also requires becoming attuned to the seasons,” she said.
Despite the challenges, when Whole Foods, Wal-Mart and others decide to source locally, it says the movement is growing beyond the locavore purists and is touching many consumers.
Eating locally sourced foods fresh from the farm is a way consumers return to their origins. It is grown in your terroir, the French word that describes the special characteristics local geography imparts to a product such as wine. Besides benefiting from the luscious tastes offered by the local farm, marketing locally grown produce also bestows an important sense of place to consumers and their supermarkets.