Going “green” in the produce industry is good for business, says Peter Testa, who runs one of the Chicago area’s biggest food distributors.
Testa’s company, Testa Produce Inc., has added a few foodservice customers since opening a new, $20.5 million distribution center on the city’s South Side this spring.
With several features designed to curb pollution and energy use, the Testa facility attracted attention from buyers with similar aims of reducing strain on the environment, Testa said.
“It fits into a lot of customers’ sustainability and green movement type of features that they have… in their own companies,” Testa said in a late-June interview. “It’s brought us new people that we wouldn’t have gotten before. Because it’s a brand-new facility, we have the ability to expand and do other things that they all wanted to do.”
Testa’s facility, which covers 91,300 square feet and officially opened in May, includes 180 solar panels, a 5,000-gallon rainwater reclamation system, biodiesel refueling stations for trucks and a roof that’s half-covered by heat-absorbing vegetation. By the end of July, Testa expects to have a 238-foot wind turbine operating that will generate about 30% of the building’s power.
Once all features are in place, the building is expected to use 57% less energy than a conventional facility of the same size, Testa says. The company primarily serves restaurants, hotels, hospitals and other foodservice operations.
Testa is a recent example of broader food industry efforts to improve “sustainability” amid stepped-up pressure from the public and lawmakers to reduce carbon emissions and waste. In 2010, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest U.S. food retailer, announced a plan to cut 20 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions from its global supply chain over the next five years.
Among fresh produce growers and shippers, sustainability efforts also are gaining momentum, industry representatives say.
At the United Fresh Produce Association’s convention in New Orleans in May, a Testa presentation on its new facility was so popular it lasted 90 minutes, more than twice as long as scheduled, according to an association official.
“On the wholesaler-distributor side, there appears to be significant interest in managing costs and overall greening of distribution facilities,” said Miriam Miller, United Fresh’s senior director of membership and staff liaison to the wholesaler-distributor board for the Washington, D.C.-based group.
In Testa’s case, a little help from the local government didn’t hurt matters, either.
Founded in 1912, Testa Produce is based in an industrial zone that once was home to the Chicago Stockyards, which closed 40 years ago. As part of broader efforts to encourage business investment and job creation in the area, Chicago effectively gave land to Testa for the project in 2009, selling to the company property previously owned by the city — and valued at $1.6 million — for $1.
Additionally, Testa received a property tax break valued at $1.17 million over the next 12 years, according to a spokesman with Chicago’s housing and economic development department.
Peter Testa, the company’s president and a grandson of the distributor’s founder, said the longer-term dividends from the new building will be well worth the investments.
By 2012, the company expects to gain platinum-level LEED certification, which would make it the first foodservice facility in the country to have that status, Peter Testa says.
LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, is a certification system developed by the U.S. Green Building Council. The four-level LEED ratings system scores buildings based on their energy and water use and carbon dioxide emissions, with bronze the lowest and platinum the highest.
Testa says expanding on the green movement ties in well to his company’s role in the fresh produce industry.
“We work with farmers, we work with growers, we work with shippers,” Testa said. “All of them deal with Mother Nature and Mother Nature is very important. And so anything you can do to enhance your environment or reduce your carbon footprint is the way to go.”