Local Produce Finds Favor, But It Isn't Always Local

July 09, 2009|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

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!").

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