There are a lot of ways to approach the discussion about building sustainable local food systems, but for a lot of food co-ops, it often starts in the produce department. This is because that is the co-op’s most visible and dynamic perishables department, and one upon which the store’s reputation is often built. Through colorful produce displays and compelling marketing and storytelling, the food co-op’s mission is front and center. It is the premier place to introduce customers to the benefits and value of supporting local agriculture. A strong local program can also boost a co-op’s financial performance by distinguishing market position, building trust, having fresher product, and offering more variety with competitive pricing.
Competitors have also responded by touting local, but in some cases, their efforts appear to be more about hanging attractive posters of farmers in their stores, than being truly committed to selling locally produced food. As many food co-op retailers have discovered, having a local food program requires clarity of purpose, organizational resources, and attention to authentic relationships. It is a strong point of differentiation for food co-ops, and it brings to light the trust and communication necessary between farmers, co-op staff and customers for it to be meaningful.
Mark Mulcahy has worked in the natural food industry for 30 years, having begun his career as a produce manager before becoming a produce consultant. He’s one of the co-creators and presenters of the Rising Stars leadership training program, and has just joined CDS Consulting Co-op. Additionally, he’s co-hosting a national radio program, An Organic Conversation (www.anorganicconversation.com) featuring discussions about local and organic food issues.
Mulcahy is a strong proponent of building local food systems and has been working with retailers on developing local buying programs in produce departments. No matter where you are located around the country or whatever your climate, “everyone can participate,” in a buy local program, Mulcahy said. Beyond produce, there is meat, dairy and other foodstuffs not as dictated by growing seasons, and it’s important to promote those things as well.
Everyone agrees that “local” is a trend these days, Mulcahy said, but the important thing to note is that for mission-driven food co-ops it is about a lot more than simply procuring product. There are long-term benefits to be had economically and socially through educating consumers to connect with their food supply and support the local economy. Additionally, assisting local farmers in their efforts to grow and thrive helps food co-ops meet customer needs. “Food is more than just eating. People in the food co-op world know this. It’s about community,” Mulcahy said. Creating a strong local buying program at the individual retail level will enhance a broader strategic vision of building a sustainable local food system.
Food cooperators may have the best of intentions regarding their local program, but those activities need to be backed by organizational skill, resources and best practices. Mulcahy has identified three key areas for local buying program development and improvement, and these include fostering communication among all stakeholders, determining a fair price, and putting resources into developing a local food system.
“Communication is essential to a good local program,” Mulcahy said, and often this begins first with the relationship between retailer and producer. Often stores are afraid to have the conversation about pricing or quality issues and yet this communication is absolutely essential to a successful program for the co-op and the farmer. The farmer may not want to hear that their chard is too small, or should have been handled better post-harvest, but if the co-op stops buying it then no one wins.
One of the things Mulcahy advocates for is that retailers deal with these issues long before the growing season starts. “It’s important to have that conversation. Starting a local program is not always easy. You have to create clear guidelines,” Mulcahy said. This is a critical part of a co-op’s buy-local operational aptitude, and one of the building blocks to a sustainable local food system. It takes coordination for both local growers and retailers to bring in the products the customers want, buy what the farmers can produce, that the co-op can reasonably sell.
At Whole Foods Co-op in Duluth, Minn., produce manager Michael Karsh said they began to implement operational changes six years ago to better do local buying. They developed a “wish list” that they send to area producers before the growing season, letting them know what they need and how much they are willing to pay for it. The wish list is based on sales data and movement reports to better predict what will sell in season.
After receiving information from the farmers, Karsh puts it in a database and figures out who they can buy from and how much they’ll produce. Since then, they’ve gone from working directly with nine local farmers to 45, and have extended their local offerings as well as the local growing season (an important consideration in Duluth) through greater regional connections. Karsh admits local buying requires more from a produce manager, but the benefit of having an influence on the quality of product and delivering it to the customers is totally worth it. “The co-op has a unique role in being the go-between for the farmer and consumer, and everyone is better off for it,” Karsh said.
On the top of everyone’s priority list is what to pay and what to charge for local foods. Mulcahy said that “a good deal is a good deal for all parties,” and that it’s important that everyone gets a fair price: farmer, retailer and consumer. “Often stores struggle with this issue,” he said. “Build your local program based on a fair price to everybody.”
Sometimes a grower wants more for their product than what the co-op thinks people will pay, so it might request a lower price from the farmer, but create more overall profit through volume. Likewise, consumers need to see the value of contributing to the local economy through their purchases. This is one reason why having the communication with farmers and the educational outreach with customers in place is so important.
Developing a Local Food System
“Those conversations about creating co-op systems will help you do a better job communicating with each other,” Mulcahy said, and he believes the next step in building a sustainable local food system will be predicated on a higher level of communication and networking. “We need to get beyond ‘I’m too busy’ to look at how we can help make that part of a produce manager’s job a powerful tool for working together.”
If everyone had grower guidelines, contracts, delivery guidelines and signage in place, “we could expand the conversation,” he said, to ways to benefit more local producers and retailers. “One of my goals is to create a produce university,” Mulcahy said, with a program that encourages networking and leadership as well as hands-on skills, making produce management an exciting and viable career. “We have to teach best practices, but also dream ourselves to the next level,” he added.