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How Grocery Stores are Promoting Local

By Esther Ellis, MS, RD, LDN

As the demand for local foods continues to increase, supermarkets are taking note. Many retailers are making changes to appeal to “locavores” by initiating new programs that call more attention to local foods, while maintaining the added benefit of being a one-stop shop.

According to Packaged Facts, a food industry research company, sales of local foods are expected to increase to $20 billion by 2019, up from $5 billion in 2008.1 While the trend of local is rising, reports from the USDA suggest that farmers’ markets are starting to experience a plateau; one reason may be that other retail entities such as grocery stores are claiming more of the share.2,3

Buying local foods comes with perks for consumers and the local economy. More of the money gleaned from these purchases goes back to local farms and businesses.2 Buying local also reduces environmental impacts, decreasing the distance between producer and consumer, subsequently cutting fuel and greenhouse gas emissions. Another environmental benefit is a reduction of waste from packaging and processing. The reduced processing and travel time also may mean local foods have more nutrients and better flavor since they’re fresher at purchase.4 Consumers often are willing to pay extra for these benefits.2

“Buying locally grown also provides the opportunity to ask how food is grown,” says Shari Steinbach, MS, RDN, owner of Shari Steinbach & Associates, LLC, a nutrition and culinary communications consulting firm that connects food companies, health professionals, and consumers in the retail setting. “Families can visit farms and become more familiar with how healthful, safe food gets to their store and ultimately their table.”

Defining Local
A downside to the term “local” is that it doesn’t have a well-established definition as it relates to food.5 The USDA defines local food as the direct or intermediated marketing of food produced and distributed in a limited geographic area to consumers.5 However, there’s no universal consensus on the distance, and retailers have varying parameters for what’s considered local. Some grocery stores define it by a 500-mile radius, others as little as 100 miles.

“Shoppers need to understand what their supermarket’s definition of local is,” Steinbach says. “For example, when I worked at Meijer we referred to locally grown as those items grown within the six-state region [in which] we had stores.”

Despite the vague definition of local foods, the increased demand and reduction of miles has spawned new business opportunities and provided benefits for producers. Fewer miles can reduce the growers’ costs, and selling local may mean producers have more direct contact with buyers, cutting out the middleman and ultimately lowering expenses. Supermarkets are adding to the opportunities as they adopt new initiatives and programs to promote local foods because they attract more customers, serving as a convenient one-stop-shop, and increase exposure and sales for local farmers, vendors, and ranchers.

“Supermarkets play a critical role in the food supply chain,” says Karen Buch, RDN, LDN, who specializes in retail dietetics and nutrition communications, and is founder of Nutrition Connections, LLC. 

An effective method for promoting local offerings in supermarkets is through marketing and advertising. Stores such as Sprouts Farmers Markets, Ruby’s Market, and Weis Markets use in-store signage to display photos of local farmers along with information about them, such as what they grow, how they started farming, and where they live. Shelf tags are an easy way to call out local products; Hannaford puts a marker directly on the price tag on the shelf, and Coborn’s, Inc, identifies local products with a “Minnesota Grown” shelf tag.6

Circular ads serve as a medium for promoting local foods, too. Many stores designate ad space to promote a local farmer, tell a story, or talk about a local food product. Jessica Miller, RDN, CDE, with Pyramid Foods, a 48-store chain that operates under 10 different banners, including Ruby’s Markets, Price Cutter, and Food Pyramid, says Ruby’s Markets gives local farmers the opportunity to advertise in its circular ad for free.

Like circular ads and in-store signage, supermarkets use their websites to tell stories about local farmers, vendors, and products. Whole Foods has a local vendors profile on its website, where customers can input their location and receive information about farms and products developed within their state. Stores also use their website to inform customers of produce items in season, local seafood offerings, and even flowers grown nearby. Publix Super Markets touts its local floral offerings on its website, while Kroger and Kings Food Markets in New Jersey provide information on seasonal foods along with recipe suggestions.7-9

Moreover, retailers are using social media to promote local foods. Emily Schwartz, MS, RDN, CD, at Festival Foods, which has 31 grocery stores throughout Wisconsin, says the retailer recently participated in a video series with the Dairy Business Association where fellow dietitian Lauren Tulig, RDN, CD, visited a local dairy farm. The video series was broadcast on the Festival Foods Facebook page and Youtube channel. In addition, the retailer has broadcast other farm tours on its Facebook page hosted by a local pumpkin grower and a local cranberry farm for the fall season. Ruby’s Markets has its dietitians host live taste tests on Facebook by having a local vendor come to the store to give more information on the product while the dietitians taste the item.

To compete with farmers’ markets, supermarkets also have created in-store events. Local farmers and vendors conduct in-store demonstrations at Sprouts Farmers Market to meet customers, whereas Coborn’s hosts farmers’ markets in its store parking lots in the summer and fall. Ruby’s Markets plans a large event each year called Local Foods Fest where several local farmers and vendors sample their products and conduct giveaways inside the stores.

Community Supported Agriculture
What’s more, retailers are using Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs to connect customers to local foods. A CSA occurs when community members “buy in” to a local farm by paying a fee, which goes to support salaries and operational costs for the farmer.10 In return, the member receives a share of the seasonal harvest. Hen House, which has locations in Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri, allows customers to get fresh foods from more than 150 different farmers, ranchers, and vendors from June to September through its CSA program.11 All of the foods are local and include items such as fruits and vegetables, herbs, eggs, beef, honey, and rice.12 While Whole Foods doesn’t facilitate a CSA, it offers its locations as a drop-off and pick-up spot for community members participating in CSAs.13

On-Site Growing
One Central Market location in Dallas has taken on a new method of promoting local by growing produce at its store. The company, owned by H-E-B, is offering varieties of lettuce grown right outside of the store in a climate-controlled container using proprietary equipment and LED lights.14 Rouses Markets, a 54-store Louisiana-based chain, grows herbs on the rooftop of one New Orleans location, using aeroponics, a technology that enables plants to grow with little soil by suspending their roots in enclosed vertical cylinders and delivering nutrients through a mist.15 The herbs grown on the rooftop are sold to customers in the store.16 Whole Foods Market in Brooklyn, New York, features a greenhouse on top of the store operated by a partner company called Gotham Greens; it provides a variety of produce to locations throughout New York City.17

Dietitians’ Impact
In addition to contributing to marketing efforts and store programs, retailers rely on their dietitians to promote local foods by providing education, conveying the benefits, and assisting customers with preparation methods and recipe ideas. “I think it’s important for dietitians to understand local foods themselves to be able to educate clients and the public about foods that are locally grown and produced,” Buch says. “Supporting local agriculture offers a unique opportunity to educate both children and adults about the sustainable agriculture connection to the health of our country’s food supply.”

— Esther Ellis, MS, RD, LDN, is a retail dietitian and freelance writer based in New Orleans, Louisiana.

1. Hesterman O, Horan D. The demand for local food is growing ­— here’s why investors should pay attention. Business Insider website. http://www.businessinsider.com/the-demand-for-local-food-is-growing-2017-4. Published April 25, 2017. Accessed February 20, 2018.

2. Low SA, Adaljia A, Beaulieu E, et al. Trends in U.S. Local and Regional Food Systems. USDA; 2015. https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/42805/51173_ap068.pdf?v=42083. Published January 2015. Accessed February 2018.

3. Agricultural Marketing Service. US Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service website. https://www.ams.usda.gov/. Accessed February 20, 2018.

4. Klavinski R. 7 benefits of eating local foods. MSU Extension. http://msue.anr.msu.edu/news/7_benefits_of_eating_local_foods. Published April 13, 2013. Accessed February 22, 2018.

5. Local foods. National Agriculture Library. https://www.nal.usda.gov/aglaw/local-foods#quicktabs-aglaw_pathfinder=1. Accessed February 22, 2018.

6. Local. Hannaford website. http://www.hannaford.com/content.jsp?pageName=Local&leftNavArea=FoodLoveLeftNav. Accessed February 22, 2018.

7. Closest to the Flowers. Publix website. http://www.publix.com/products-services/floral/closest-to-flowers. Accessed February 23, 2018.

8. Meet our featured farmers. Kroger website. http://discoverfresh.kroger.com/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

9. Farm fresh. Kings website. https://kingsfoodmarkets.com/farm-fresh. Accessed February 25, 2018.

10. Community supported agriculture. United States Department of Agriculture website. https://www.nal.usda.gov/afsic/community-supported-agriculture. Updated February 2017. Accessed February 25, 2018.

11. CSA vendors: A&T Farms. Hen House website. https://www.henhouse.com/csa-vendors/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

12. What’s in the bag. Hen House website. https://www.henhouse.com/whats-in-the-bag-2/. Accessed February 24, 2018.

13. Search Results: CSA. Whole Foods Market website. https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/site_search/CSA. Accessed February 24, 2018.

14. Okumura J. H-E-B-Owned central market partners with CEA advisors and Growtainer® for store grown initiative. And Now U Know website. https://www.andnowuknow.com/quick-dish/h-e-b-owned-central-market-partners-cea-advisors-and-growtainer-store/jordan-okumura/53774#.WpMOB-dG3IU. Published May 19, 2017. Accessed February 24, 2018.

15. What is aeroponics? HowStuffWorks website. https://home.howstuffworks.com/lawn-garden/professional-landscaping/alternative-methods/what-is-aeroponics.htm. Accessed March 4, 2018.

16. Rouses markets creates sustainable aeroponic rooftop garden above downtown New Orleans store. PR Newswire website. https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/rouses-markets-creates-sustainable-aeroponic-rooftop-garden-above-downtown-new-orleans-store-151890995.html. Published May 17, 2012. Accessed February 24, 2018.

17. Brooklyn greenhouse: Gotham Greens. Whole Foods Market website. https://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/service/brooklyn-greenhouse-gotham-greens. Accessed February 24, 2018.