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The New York Times this morning has a long story by the estimable Marian Burros about how mainstream supermarket chains and agribusinesses are changing the way they operate, in part to cater to consumers’ increased desire for “local” foods and in part to cope with the higher costs of transportation that threaten their profitability. “Supermarkets are beginning to catch on that stocking corn and tomatoes grown nearby is not enough for customers,” the Times writes. “ Now they are competing with farm stands and farmers’ markets for a wider variety of fresh fruits and vegetables.”

In some cases, the Times writes, “growers like Dole and Nunes have contracted with farmers in the East to grow products like broccoli and leafy greens that they used to ship from the West Coast. Because of fuel costs, in some instances the cost of freight is more than the cost of the products.”

And chains such as Hannaford and Wegmans are finding that while they have had a long commitment to local growers, shoppers are pushing them to find more local sources for their foods. However, it isn’t always easy. “Big retailers have even more work to do,” the Times writes. “Used to making just a few phone calls to large produce distributors, often thousands of miles away, they do not have the setup or the personnel to deal with individual farmers who deliver to the back door. Some of them are reluctant to do so and small farmers either have to join a co-op or find a distributor who can deliver to the supermarket’s warehouse.

“The chains also have to change their purchasing practices to make room for seasonal local produce instead of being locked into a year-round contract with one source in order to insure the lowest prices.”

“Some of the early attempts by retailers have shown that local does not always mean better,” the Times reports. “In New York last week there was no discernible difference between blueberries from New Jersey and those from California at Food Emporium, both priced the same. Jersey tomatoes at Whole Foods were barely more flavorful than those from away. Packaged plums and apricots at both stores were hard as rocks, and the corn was not really fresh.”

KC's View:
The general consensus seems to be that while there will be potholes along the way as this new way of doing business evolves, the fact is that a transformation is taking place in how food is sourced.

What I’m interested in seeing is what the next iteration will be.