Wednesday, September 12, 2007

"Com'on! I'm not that stupid!" -- How grocery stores are defining local

The word “local” is -- fortunately or unfortunately -- wide-open for interpretation. The closest synonym is probably “regional,” but that word is fraught with ambiguity too. Is “local,” as my dictionary tells me, an area defined by artificial boundaries created by the government (such as state, county, and city lines)? Or is its meaning closer to “region,” which is an area that is defined by a particular climate or geographical arrangement? I, personally, tend toward the second definition, but regardless of how I use the word, there are others out there that are using the word too, and when those others are grocery stores, it pays to find out what they mean by it.

Yesterday, I walked out of my neighborhood Vons carrying only paper towels, tissues, contact lens solution, and some conditioner. Three months ago, I would have bought our entire week of groceries there. It’s to the point where I could probably just stop by the neighboring Rite-Aid to purchase what I need and cut out the grocery store altogether, but that is not the way I had hoped it would be. I had made a sincere effort at the beginning of this undertaking to KEEP the grocery store in our food buying simply for the sake of convenience, but it’s turned out to be more work than heading to the farmers’ market or picking up my CSA box. There have been moments of hope, in which a Vons employee gladly took down my name and number and promised to have the produce manager call me to tell me if there was any local produce in the organic produce bin. (I never heard another word.) And then there was the time I found local, organic blueberries and blackberries too, with the “Local Farms” mural on the wall of the produce department proudly displayed above. As it turns out, the mural serves only to taunt me and apparently is only a gimmick. Even if Vons has a definition of local, they don’t really stock local food anyway.

A large “Choose Local” banner appeared on the front of my Henry’s in Poway about two months ago, but only last week did “choose local” signage finally show up on some products (Wild Oats organic milk and soy milk, Horizon organic sour cream, Napa Valley wine, for instance). Recognizing many as national brands, I inquired as to Henry’s definition of local and this was the response I received from customer service:

In an effort to support local we draw from surrounding states (like Colorado) as well as growers and vendors in your area. We do our best to provide you with a great selection of products and support the local growers and vendors.
Colorado is local?!? Even in my most liberal definition of “local,” it does not include Colorado (which really means Henry's defines local as most of the western half of the United States). I was surprised by this response, because Henry’s started out as an actual farmstand, with the most intimate ties to local farmers. If anyone understands local, it should be Henry’s. Not so, it appears.

Whole Foods is a big champion of local food (they've recently created Regional Foragers for each of their regions), but their website simply states that “definitions of local and regional are specific to each store or city. They may differ somewhat from your own idea of ‘local.’ Our intent is to provide clear, complete information and make it easy for you to choose local and choose regional.” Yet their website doesn’t even have a western-region specific page for local foods as it does for the other regions. An email to corporate for more information has gone unanswered.

Not surprisingly, the O.B. People’s Organic Foods Co-Op, a far different environment than most grocery stores, has been the most forthright in their labeling. They’ve recently introduced a “Local Logo” label in the store (they have been labeling most of their produce with provenance for quite some time), and according to their September newsletter, they define local as “the region no more than a day’s drive from the store” and “food and products grown and produced within a 150 mile radius.” On my trip to the store last night, I only noticed local honey (from Rancho Santa Fe and Fallbrook) and numerous options in produce. Perhaps over the next couple months more labels will start showing up in the store’s offerings.

In the meantime, I'm going to continue being wary of "local" labeling and will keep demanding that it be defined. I can imagine that this sort of labeling will become more frequent as the eat-local movement grows. To grocery stores I say this: "Misleading labeling is no way to earn a localtarian's business." Why? Because local eating places emphasis on such things as trust between the consumer and the grower, the development of relationships, and the knowledge of knowing exactly where food comes from. Don't slap on the "local" label and think that I'll take your word on it. "Com'on! I'm not that stupid!"


Diane said...

I dragged my husband to a small, very local harvest festival at our local university this evening. The nice professor explained all about their organic garden for use by their students and the hungry in our area. She also promoted the organic farm market nearby that I need to check out again. (When I checked there a few weeks ago, the pickings were pretty lean.)

There was also a table with a herb expert. Great tip - dice up your fresh herbs, put them in ice cream trays, cover with water and freeze. When you want some "fresh" parsley or basil for your soup this winter, just drop in a herbal ice cube!

Another woman was demonstrating how to start a compost pile and how to manage worm compost. Fascinating. I'm feeling very guilty about all the peelings I've been dumping down my garbage disposal while I'm canning my local tomatoes and peaches.... One step at a time!

Melanie said...

I tried the herb ice cubes last night with a bunch of parsley I received in my CSA box. I have two more bunches of cilantro that will go bad soon too, so I'll probably dry one and freeze the other. Thanks for the idea!

kaleforsale said...

You go girl! I've been questioning produce clerks, waitresses and the vendors at farmer's markets. The answers if not often so sad would be humorous. But I remain optimistic. And the ice cube idea is brilliant. I can't wait to do it.

Bettina Stern said...

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Please go to our website and sign-up to gain a better sense of who we are and how our site works. Everything we have written so far is archived on our home page.