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Hunger Grows for Locally Grown Food

Restaurants, grocery stores discovering a tasty advantage

March 30, 2005 | By Diane Conners
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Diane Conners

Barry Eastman’s moderately priced restaurant spent $160,000 purchasing local food last year

When customers enter Rudy’s Tacos in Waterloo, Iowa, there’s no doubt they’re about to eat locally grown food in their tacos, burritos, and enchiladas.

At the diner’s entrance a large, colorful poster with photos of farmers reads, “Buy Fresh Buy Local” and “Meet Rudy’s Farmers.” And at the tables, owner Barry Eastman posts information about how much he spends buying local farm products — $166,000 last year, including 100 percent of his chicken, pork, beef, cheese, sour cream, and tomatoes. The 120-seat restaurant draws customers from blue collar Waterloo, home to a John Deere tractor plant, and from the nearby college town Cedar Falls.

Hundreds of miles east of Rudy’s, customers of the independently owned Atkins Farms Country Market in Amherst, Mass., also know they will find fresh local produce and other “native” products, as the 30,000-square-foot store calls them. There, the price cards in the produce aisle highlight local products with the “Be A Local Hero – Buy Locally Grown” logo, which consumers in western Massachusetts now connect with supporting local farms and finding good, fresh food.

Across the country, restaurants and retail grocers are meeting consumer demand — and drawing more customers — by serving or selling everything from juicy tomatoes to flavorful meats bought from local farms. Small, independent retail grocers like the Atkins market use local food to help them stand out from the big box stores that can threaten their survival. Similarly, Mr. Eastman’s focus on local products distinguishes Rudy’s from the chain eateries that serve mass-produced food.

“There are so many chains coming at us,” Mr. Eastman said. “They are not going to stop. This will differentiate us from the chains. I just think it gives us a competitive edge.”

This new twist in the farm economy is fine with growers, too. They are very happy to sell locally; that market offers a safe haven from the storm of devastatingly low bulk commodities prices that are sinking so many farms. They know that locally sold products bring top prices.

A Budding Love Affair
Increasingly, local food campaigns organized by nonprofit groups, state agriculture departments, and consumer and chef groups are nurturing the budding love affair between local retailers and local farmers. Using a wide range of publicity techniques, from posters to dedicated special events, they raise consumer awareness about the availability and quality of food that’s “thousands of miles fresher” because it comes from nearby and is not shipped long distances and stored for weeks.

For example, the Practical Farmers of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa coordinate the Buy Fresh Buy Local campaign that Rudy’s participates in. The farm organization and the university are among a number of groups in 10 states that joined together in 2003 with the national nonprofit FoodRoutes Network to share resources and lessons learned in their individual Buy Fresh Buy Local campaigns.

One of the oldest such efforts is Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture. Its Be a Local Hero — Buy Locally Grown campaign began in 1999 in western Massachusetts, where the Atkins grocery is located. The trend is gaining ground rapidly; Supermarket News, a leading publication for food retailers, reported last year that states from California to Maine and North Carolina to New York are pumping marketing dollars into promotion of locally grown foods.

In Michigan, the state agriculture department teamed up in 2003 with the nonprofit Michigan Integrated Food and Farming Systems to launch its Select Michigan campaign, which introduced local foods into chain stores in the Grand Rapids and Detroit areas. The nonprofit Michigan Land Use Institute launched a campaign to promote local farm food in the Traverse City region last year; this year the Institute is expanding the program to also promote grocers and restaurants that are buying from local farmers.

Signs of Success
Michigan is seeing some strong signs of success with its program. Retail grocery chains that participated in the Select Michigan campaign reported increases of 10 to 12 percent in the volume of Michigan apples sold instate in 2004. They even saw increases in potato sales — 3.1 percent at one chain and 27.4 percent at another — in a year when the low-carbohydrate diet craze made potatoes taboo. Moreover, when organizers held special in-store tastings of Michigan products, consumers often replaced what was already in their shopping carts with the local products. The tastings kept produce department employees busy, according to Christine Lietzau, the program manager.

“They have to restock the display two or three times during a two-hour promotion,” she said.

Similarly, local strawberries outsold the California berries displayed right next to them at a Massachusetts grocery, even though the local ones cost $1 more, said Mark Lattanzi, a Be a Local Hero project director.

“What I hear from produce managers is that their customers are asking for local produce,” Mr. Lattanzi said. “If it’s summertime and the corn isn’t there, they are asking, ‘When is the corn going to be here?’ They have to stock it because their customers want it. They’d be foolish not to.”

The enthusiasm for local foods can get downright personal, according to Pauline Lannon, president of the Atkins grocery that is a part of Mr. Lattanzi’s project. Her store hosts a special tasting event every August; about 25 local vendors share their wares with about 600 customers.

“The interest our customers have in this event is really heart-warming,” she said. “They love coming in and meeting the people who produce their food.”

Some Tasty Statistics
There are plenty of statistics and studies confirming that consumers want to buy and eat locally grown foods. For example:

  • Seventy-three percent of Americans find it important to know whether food is grown or produced locally or regionally, according to a national poll conducted by Roper Public Affairs last spring for a farmer cooperative, Organic Valley Family of Farms. The survey received notice in Supermarket News.
  • More than 75 percent of consumers surveyed in 2003 in seven Midwestern states (Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, and Kansas), and the metropolitan Boston and Seattle areas chose “grown locally by family farmers” as their first choice for produce or products, according to Iowa State University, which conducted the research.
  • Seventy percent of households surveyed in Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri, and Wisconsin in 2001 said it was very or extremely important that their purchase supported a local family farm and was locally grown or produced, according to a study by the University of Nebraska.
  • Shoppers who seek out “natural” foods, such as organic or hormone-free products, overwhelmingly choose freshness as their number-one value, according to a study last summer by The Natural Foods Merchandiser, a trade journal for natural products retailers. The same shoppers said the last thing they would want removed from stores is local produce and products.

Both university studies showed that consumers prefer local products because of their freshness, quality, taste, and the support they give to local farmers and the local economy.

A Good Deal for Everyone
Mr. Eastman, at Rudy’s Tacos, has also found those qualities to be important. In fact, the quality of the products is so high that he said it’s economically sensible to buy from local farmers even if the initial cost is sometimes higher, and even though he doesn’t charge four-star restaurant prices. Lunch at Rudy’s is $5 or $6 dollars; just about any meal there is less than $10.

For example, the price of the local organic chicken Mr. Eastman buys is 60 cents a pound more than the commercial chickens he could buy — $1.63 a pound compared to $1.03 a pound. Yet, the organic birds, his first attempt at buying local, yield so much more meat per bird that they significantly reduce his labor costs.

“When you figure in the labor it takes to peel the meat off the bone and break it down, it worked out to be about the same cost,” he said. “And the quality of the chicken — I was like, ‘Wow — I could make my restaurant a much better place just by going local.’”

He’s pleased, too, by customer response.

“One woman just went crazy over the chicken because she remembered chicken from when she was a kid on the farm,” he said. “She hadn’t tasted chicken like that for 20 years. There are a lot of people who don’t know what chicken is supposed to taste like.”

At the time, Mr. Eastman couldn’t buy a free-range chicken through a wholesale distributor. But even though he might be able to buy them now, Mr. Eastman says he intends to continue purchasing locally. He likes the relationships he’s developed with his farmers, and the opportunity to support other local businesses.

“Once I started working with these farmers, I developed a pretty cool relationship with them, and I recognized they are a small business just like I am,” he said.

If he can spend more than $100,000 locally, he said, just think of the difference in the community if 10 businesses did that. “It would be $1 million that stays right here.”

“I’ve heard it is a bit odd that a blue collar restaurant like mine is doing local food,” he said. “Usually it is the high-end places. A Mexican place in Iowa? If I can do it, who can’t?”

Diane Conners, a veteran journalist and former farmers market master, coordinates the Michigan Land Use Institute’s entrepreneurial agriculture program. Reach her at diane@mlui.org.

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