( Photo by The Packer staff )

We know the term “local” means different things to different people. With no hard-and-fast rule on the distance between the farm and point of consumption, produce professionals tout that their local fruits and vegetables are grown and consumed within the same city, county, state, region or even national boundaries. 

I’m all in favor of keeping the integrity of the term, but I’d like to suggest an even more lax definition — at least in the case of Northeasterners. I think, and so do several others in my region, that an imported product can be considered local. It’s only a 6-hour drive (or a 1.5-hour flight) from Montreal’s surrounding farms to New York’s metropolitan mouths. 

I’d argue that it’s more local than California, which can take more than two days to deliver food from farm to Northeastern forks.

The Northeastern U.S. and southeastern Canada are more similar than different when it comes to agriculture. There are similar soils and climates. The seasons overlap but vary enough to fill in the gaps of availability for at least a few weeks or months.
And if calling something “local” feels too much like a hoax, then calling it “regional” is the next-best thing. When it’s not available, then by all means, tout the product as “USA-grown” and source from the warm climates of California and Florida. 

Economist Michael Hand of the U.S. Department of Agriculture wrote in a 2010 food, nutrition and farming blog post that a growing number of major food retailers are introducing local food sourcing initiatives. Almost a decade later, the fact seems even truer.

We know this is not just a desire of those who shop farmers markets and belong to community-supported agriculture groups. The produce industry can do this on a large scale too, not only by sourcing products as closely as possible (which many do anyway when it makes business sense), but by promoting the fact as loudly as possible. For many shoppers, that local label can be more important than organic and doesn’t have the reputation of being expensive. 

As a business owner, salesperson, produce marketer or manager, you have to determine your motivations for promoting something as local — motives besides the obvious benefit of increasing sales and consumption of your product. 

Are you trying to help the growers in the area? The local economy? Reduce food miles and your carbon footprint? Or promoting your product’s peak freshness and nutrient density? 
Sell that in your marketing materials.

I want to help U.S. products, growers and businesses as much as the next proud American, so if this concept hurts my country’s economy, then no, it’s not a good idea. 

Baldor Specialty Foods, Bronx, N.Y., is an example of how a company is making local a flexible term with its Local Pledge program. When customers — generally, foodservice providers and markets in the tristate area — sign up, Baldor will switch to a local farm automatically if the produce is within a 10% price range of the customer’s original choice. The program allows customers to choose the distance — their version of local.

There has to be a balance. Let’s rethink what sourcing local means. 

Amy Sowder is The Packer’s Northeast editor. E-mail her at [email protected]

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