CHICAGO — The local buzz is more like a dull roar among consumers, many of whom are now looking for local before organic. That increasing demand means challenges for retailers and foodservice.
Melanie Beretti, left, director of business development for SureHarvest, talks with Bill Pool of Wegmans, center, and Kathleen Phillips of Pro*Act following a session focused on local produce challenges and opportunities at United Fresh 2014. For Long Island City, N.Y.-based online retailer Fresh Direct, local meant building a relationship and a brand with regional growers, said co-founder David McInerney.
McInerney, along with Bill Pool, quality assurance manager for Rochester, N.Y.-based Wegmans and Kathleen Phillips, supply chain sustainability manger for Pro*Act, Monterey, Calif., were panelists at the Retail-Foodservice Super Session “Beyond the Buzz: Exploring the Opportunities and Challenges of ‘Local’” on June 12.
Fresh Direct partners with specific growers, McInerney said.
“That builds a real allegiance where there’s loyalty from the grower,” he said. “We won’t just sell an apple, we’ll sell an apple from a specific farm.”
Marketing local as a brand also helps with the other eight months out of the year when local isn’t available in the New York area. Fresh Direct continues to market from local growers whose products aren’t used fresh, such as a kale grower who does frozen smoothie starters.
Fulfilling the demand for local is tough for retailers and growers, too. Wegmans looks for ways to support local growers through the process to make it smoother and safer in the long run, Pool said.
Wegmans made it mandatory for all suppliers, regardless of size, to have a good agricultural practices audit in place last year, and over the past few years the company has enacted measures to get growers on track with ordering and accounts receivables.
Growers are required to handle ordering through a Web-based system, something that can be challenging when working with growers not accustomed to technology, like those in Amish or Mennonite communities.
“We can get real-time information on products and availability, and a grower gets a copy of the invoice when the product is received at the store — invoices don’t get lost or go through the wash,” he said. “Growers get paid in less than 10 days, and that means a happy grower.”
Wegmans and Pro*Act also put a financial stake in getting growers up to date with food safety and traceability. Pro*Act offers grants to growers for audits.
“Food safety is the highest piece of our program,” Phillips said.
Accountability also is a big part of the piece, too. Know who you are buying from, and back it up.
“You can’t just say you’re buying local, you need to say who and you need to make sure that’s what’s in the box in the back,” she said.