“There is not a whole lot of local produce around because you have the farmers markets take what little bit there is, and every year you see less and less farms,” said Russ Lodarek, sales manager with Big Apple Finer Foods Inc., Chicago.
Some retailers send their trucks directly to farms to pick up local produce and thus bypass the wholesale market completely.
But Lodarek said local growers are hard to find in the Chicago area, with the younger generation of growers perhaps less motivated to farm than their parents.
“Generally speaking, there is a lot of money in the land, and there is no reason to compete with Mexico and California,” he said.
Demand for local produce in Chicago is evident but customers are price sensitive, said Damon Marano, director of business development for Chicago-based Anthony Marano Co.
“Everybody wants local, but no one wants to pay for it,” he said. “If the price is right, they want local.”
Statistics compiled by the Centers for Disease Control show just 0.3% of Illinois cropland is devoted to fruits and vegetables, compared with 43% for Florida and 34% for California. Other Midwest states far outpace Illinois as well, with 4.5% of Michigan cropland and 3.6% of Wisconsin farmland planted to fruits and vegetables.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is encouraging local food production in Chicago and other cities through the agency’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Community Food Project awards. The awards support organizations using local food to develop community-based solutions to address food insecurity and increase access to healthy food in low-income communities.
This year, the USDA awarded grant funding to Growing Power in Chicago. Through its Farmers for Chicago initiative, Growing Power will provide training and coaching for local food project operators in order to build the long-term capacity of low-income, underserved populations to produce high-quality, culturally appropriate food throughout Chicago, according to the USDA.
Demand for organic produce is increasing in Chicago, and Chicago-based Dietz & Kolodenko is carrying more organic produce in response to that demand, president Nick Gaglione said. Sales of organic apples, grapes and soft fruit have increased, he said.
Gaglione said independent retailers over time have shifted their product mix as they target their offerings to changing neighborhoods.
“The customer base itself has been constantly moving toward the Hispanic and Asian customers,” he said.
Of the total Chicago metro-area population of 9.46 million in 2010, the U.S. Census Bureau reported 21% were of Hispanic or Latin origin, with Asian ethnic heritage accounting for 6% of the total.