As local food gains traction, co-ops go the extra mile
A couple of summers ago, I asked the general manager at my Maryland co-op, Takoma Park Silver Spring Co-op, whether the store carried local products and how I could identify them when I shopped there. The general manager at the time told me they were starting a new program of gold stars to highlight local products throughout the store. Sure enough, when I looked for the rapidly appearing stars, I found not only produce, but dairy products, maple syrup, granola, even locally made organic tofu. I’ve been following the gold stars ever since.
The local food movement is gaining traction all around the country, even playing a major role in framing the debate over this year’s farm bill. The energy is palpable and powerful, and cooperatives are starting to tap it to the benefit of both their members and their local growers and producers.
Local definitions, regional economies
The first step in marketing local products is defining what “local” means. “A comfortable day’s drive is a good distance and something most consumers would agree with,” says Steve Cooke, general manager of Sevananda Natural Foods Market in Atlanta. For most co-ops using this kind of distance marker, that translates into anywhere within 200-300 miles, which puts a broad range of produce, meats, dairy, grains, and other food products within reach of most urban co-ops.
The radius is pushed a little larger in the case of Brooklyn’s Park Slope Co-op. “Exurbia is so big,” says Park Slope general manager Joe Holtz, that they allow a distance of 500 miles, although in practice very few of their sources are more than 250 miles away. In other cases, specific jurisdictions might be identified. “We consider the five-state area to be local,” says Jenn Posterick, marketing and membership manager at River Market Co-op in Stillwater, Minnesota, speaking of Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Iowa.
Some co-ops feel it’s important to draw further distinctions between products made with local ingredients and products that are made locally with ingredients from elsewhere, such as coffees and teas. Tom Mattox, general manager of Food Front Cooperative Grocery in Portland, Oregon, says “We are also trying to find a way to distinguish produce and products that we get direct from growers and producers and those that come from a distributor. … Oregon Chai is local but it’s different from Dragonfly Chai, which is a small Portland business that delivers its chai personally to us. The owner comes into the store and samples it.”
Posterick agrees that demos are always a hit with River Market shoppers. “‘You’re the guy behind this ice cream?’ is something they can ask the guy from Crystal Ball Farm, and his pride really shines through.” Putting farmers’ names and faces with products reinforces local product identity. River Market’s “spokesfarmer” campaign includes vendor information at the point of sale, in newsletter stories, even in a series of television ads that have made some local farmers minor celebrities in their communities.
For many consumers, this connection to the people who are producing the food is one of the primary reasons why they buy local. “We know that we make a real difference in the lives of farmers in our area,” says Park Slope’s Holtz. From its inception in 1972, Park Slope has been committed to buying locally whenever it could. Although the concept of eating and buying locally wasn’t as well articulated then as it has become now, Holtz says, “There was an understanding that the family farms should not be going away.”
Formerly, products weren’t always labeled or marketed as local, because the co-op’s ethic just assumed that things would be local whenever possible, and that it was the best thing to do. Park Slope has even prioritized local over organic, sometimes taking what Holtz calls “a hard line,” for instance, declining even to stock organic apples from across the country when minimally treated New York apples are available.
About 10 years ago, Park Slope began labeling produce with country, state, and even farm of origin information, making it easy to identify where any product has come from. Other co-ops have developed special shelf tags that put a spotlight on what’s local. Both Food Front and the Twin Cities Natural Food Co-ops, a 12-member association including River Market, have developed unique logos incorporating an apple on a green background. At Sevananda, Georgia Grown signs adorn not only shelves but a specialty cart featuring exclusively local produce during the height of the growing season.
Beyond the co-op
But the folks at La Montañita Food Cooperative in Albuquerque have taken the idea of a local label several steps beyond simply helping their members know where the food came from. With its “Beneficial Eco-Label,” La Montañita has created an entirely new category for marketing local and sustainable agricultural products, which can be used by producers and retailers across the regional “foodshed.”
“It is our in-house way to verify ‘clean food status’ in scenarios where [organic] certification does not add value for the producer,” says Steve Warshawer, who developed the Beneficial label eight years ago to market super premium eggs from his Santa Fe–area farm of the same name. Last year, the Beneficial labeling concept was acquired by La Montañita as part of a commitment to the development of a sustainable food-shed in the Southern Rocky Mountains and Desert Southwest region.
To qualify for the Beneficial Eco-Label, farms must meet several criteria, including: submission of a farm improvement plan detailing current best practices, submission of a customer assurance affidavit stating that they believe their land and farming practices are certifiable as organic, and a farm visit by a representative of the Beneficial Eco-Label licensing team. This label can be carried by the product itself, wherever it is marketed.
All the co-ops interviewed for this article reported growing customer awareness of and desire for local foods. “Over the past three years, our support of local products is the number one reason selected by our co-op members for choosing La Montañita from a list in our annual member survey,” according to marketing director Edite Cates. “There is a core group of members and shoppers who keep on us about selling more local,” says Sevananda’s Cooke. “When we sell local tomatoes side by side with imported, the local tomatoes always sell much more quickly, even at as much as one dollar more per pound.” According to River Market’s Posterick, among the several types of local honey they stock, “It seems that the closer it’s sourced, the faster it sells.”
While some co-ops are just beginning to create systems to track sales of local products, those who do have statistics confirm that the percentage of local products they carry is increasing. At Food Front, local produce is increasing about five percent each year. At La Montañita, 16 percent of retail sales were derived from regionally produced products in 2003, and that percentage rose to 22 in 2006. In the past two years, La Montañita has added 100 regional producers, bringing the co-op’s total to 400 producers providing more than 1,000 products.
Ultimately the experience of these stores shows that marketing local products aggressively not only helps sell them, but in addition helps create more sources for them. La Montañita also operates La Montañita Cooperative Distribution Center, which in 2006 moved $100,000 worth of products from 30 farms to wholesale buyers in the region including Whole Foods. By helping growers access additional markets, they have helped to increase and stabilize the flow of local products within the food-shed. In Minnesota, similarly, Posterick notes that the commitment of the River Market and the other Twin Cities co-ops to sourcing locally has spurred more growers and vendors to adopt natural/organic practices.
Owning and parking a truck in Brooklyn has always been cost-prohibitive for Park Slope, putting them at the mercy of distributors or farmers willing to drive products down to the city. But Holtz says it has become much easier as the co-op’s reputation for favoring local products has grown. “We’ve become more attractive to people to figure out how to get it to us.” New distribution partnerships have sprung up, and distributors know that, if they put local products on the truck, Park Slope will buy them.