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Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The Kroger Marketplace in the Village of Coventry sports large “Indiana Grown” signs.

Supplying local demand

Shoppers prefer area food, but some has to come from afar

An “Indiana Grown” sign hangs in Kroger.

Integrity, authenticity and trust are dinner-table topics linked with politics – and food.

It’s no surprise a survey shows a growing number of consumers concerned about the origins of their meals. E. coli and salmonella outbreaks will do that.

An online poll by research and consulting firm A.T. Kearney of Chicago revealed big-box and national retailers are seen as offering cheaper but lower quality food than farmers markets, natural food providers and local supermarkets. True or not, perception becomes a reality that national grocers know they have to address. And they have.

Meijer Inc., for example, annually spends $80 million with farmers in its five-state region of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. The company, however, does not reveal spending amounts with non-local growers.

The grocery chain says it is currently the largest purchaser of local produce in the markets it serves. Locally grown fruits and vegetables account for 30 percent of all produce sold at its stores during the peak season.

A company survey of Meijer shoppers found many said supporting area farmers is the biggest benefit of buying local produce at the grocery store, officials said. The Grand Rapids, Mich., company works with more than 100 local growers and businesses, up 25 percent over the past five years.

But how local is local?

Most consumers would prefer their food from people they know, said James Rushing, co-author of the A.T. Kearney poll and a partner with the firm, which released results in January. The survey involved 1,300 people and has a margin of error of plus or minus 0.3 percentage points.

Founded in 1926, A.T. Kearney has 57 offices in major cities in 39 countries.

The company discovered that among affluent families, 71 percent would be willing to pay more for local food, compared with 67 percent of middle-class households and 57 percent of low-income households.

“When it comes to trust, local farms have done a very good job of it,” Rushing said. “People associate farmers markets and the like with quality.”

National chains can get the same glowing reviews, but “it’s going to be tougher.” Rushing said. “It’s going to depend on how they respond.”

Meijer has taken to YouTube to tout a partnership with a Coldwater, Mich., greenhouse that grows tomatoes year-round for the chain.

“Coldwater is not too far from you guys and that’s important to us,” said Meijer spokesman FrankGuglielmi, adding that besides Michigan, the company also does business with Indiana and Ohio farmers. “We work very hard to use local farms when possible. The primary thing is quality.”

Kroger Co. leaders say the same. The Cincinnati retailer also made sure that the state’s only two Marketplace stores in Fort Wayne included large wooden signs in the produce area declaring, “Indiana Grown.”

Kroger spokesman John Elliott, however, said the company uses a variety of vendors from other areas to satisfy consumer demand.

“There was a time when people were content to wait until green beans were in season,” he said, “but today’s 21st-century customer wants all the primary produce all year.”

It is impossible to do that unless you venture out to other countries, Elliott said.

That point is lost on many customers, Rushing said.

Shoppers often don’t trust the origin of “local” foods at their national grocers and big-box retailers, Rushing said in his report. He said in-store signs that showcase local farmers are a good idea, as is allowing consumers to sample items.

“It’s not impossible to build that trust,” he said.

Workers at Jamison Meats believe they have it.

“That’s why people come to us,” said Debbie Woods, manager of the Jamison Meats location at Time Corners. “We use the same suppliers and they’re not spread out in every place, coming from here and there.”

Cornell University agriculture professor Mike Van Amburgh said the debate over who grows the best food has more to do with preference than facts. He was in Fort Wayne last weekend during the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge and Dairy Challenge Academy.

“Food is personal … and a consumer choice,” Van Amburgh said. “But that doesn’t mean smaller farms are producing a better quality of food than larger farms just because they’re smaller.”

Van Amburgh said the procedures at large-scale operations are as safe – and perhaps more so – than modest farms. And people may think that small farms that allow animals to roam more freely guarantees a better product, but that isn’t necessarily the case, Van Amburgh said.

“This is about (food) production, not pets,” he said, adding that people can’t expect farmers to treat farm animals like cats and dogs.

Brenda Kamphues disagrees. The 45-year-old Fort Wayne resident shopped at Walmart and thinks the government should do more to ensure food quality.

“We need to get back to how it used to be,” she said. “We shouldn’t be eating foods from other countries. We have enough right here.”