How could anyone speak critically of local foods? These products seemingly put a smile on everyone’s face by helping farmers, differentiating retailers and supporting local economies.
But despite being trendy and valued, local foods are still full of challenges that haven’t been fully resolved. So it’s best to go into this activity with eyes wide open.
Independents and other distributors are honest about this topic, a fact that became clear at the recent NGA Show during two separate panels.
One of the hurdles is that wholesalers often don’t want to get involved in handling local items.
“It’s hard for a large distribution center to really participate in local products,” said Mike Bove, vice president of perishables, Nash Finch Co. “We do it when we can. But I encourage retailers to buy local, because they can buy in smaller allotments and focus on farmers in their particular area.”
This means smaller retailers have to be willing to make that effort themselves. Noted Mike Beal, vice president and chief financial officer, Ball’s Food Stores, “We pick it up in our own trucks and distribute it from a small grocery warehouse we have.”
Another local food challenge is bad weather, which can reduce the sizes of crops across the country, making truly local marketing virtually impossible in some places and requiring other strategies. In one example, weather problems recently impacted the apple crops in Michigan and New York, and “at times Washington apples became the new local” in those areas, according to Howard Nager, vice president of marketing, Domex Superfresh Growers, based in Washington state.
Food safety is one of the most sensitive topics involving local foods, because local farmers may not have the most sophisticated processes in place.
The exemption of small farmers from the Food Safety Modernization Act was criticized by organizations including Produce Marketing Association, said Bryan Silberman, PMA’s president and CEO, while moderating an NGA panel. However, PMA is partnering with some of its members to hold local grower training sessions to teach “how to put together a food safety program.”
My point here isn’t to harp on local food downsides or warn against this type of merchandising. Local items are popular with consumers and should be embraced. Still, retailers should be fully aware of the complexities and possible workarounds, so that local headaches don’t become companywide migraines.