Many of your customers probably ride their bicycles, walk or take public transportation to cut down on fossil fuel use. They shop at neighborhood stores instead of national chains to help the local economy. They choose organic food because organic production is easier on the environment. But what about the ener?gy it takes to drive, fly or ship that juicy organic New Zealand apple to your natural foods store where a socially and environmentally conscious customer picks it up? Often, the food in your customers' shopping baskets is more traveled than your customers, and that has unseen consequencesâboth on the environment and the economy.
"Several surveys from different wholesale markets in the United States show that fruits and vegetables are traveling between 2,500 and 4,000 kilometers from farm to market," writes Brian Halweil, senior researcher at the Washinton, D.C.-basedWorldwatch Institute, in his book Home Grown (WW Norton, 2004). "[That's] an increase of roughly 20 percent in the last two decades."
Increasing urbanization, subsidized oil prices and scientific advances in food preservation and ripening control are all influencing the distance food travels from production to consumption, raising questions about the effects of "food miles."
Food traveling between states, countries and continents requires a staggering amount of fuel, Halweil writes. And many of the biggest culprits are high-value items with low caloric value and high water content, like vegetables, frozen foods and cut flowers, says Joan Gussow, a nutritionist at Columbia University in New York. The increase in the distance food travels also often corresponds with an increase in packaging and food waste, Halweil writes.
According to Halweil, a head of lettuce grown in California and shipped about 3,000 miles to Washington, D.C., requires about 36 times as much fossil fuel energy for transportation as it provides in food energy.
Greater fossil fuel use depletes resources and adds more pollu?tion to the environmentâthings your customers are probably concerned about. But natural foods stores are catching wind of these challenges and taking action to promote local agriculture.
"Natural food retailers have been some of the most innovative players in the local food movement," Halweil says. "Their custo?mers are already curious about their food, asking questions about how it was grown, what additives were used, whether the milk is from cows that were fed hormones. So it's natural for their customers to wonder where the food was grown, how far it was shipped and whether it helped support local farmers and protect local farmland."
Jeanie Wells, general manager of the Community Mercantile Co-op in Lawrence, Kan., says her customers are interested in knowing where their food comes from for several reasons, including food-safety issues and fuel consumption. While limiting consumption of foreign oil might not have been discussed in mainstream channels a few years ago, she says it's a cause gaining support now.
The Mercantile is beginning a "Miles to the Merc" program meant to empower customers to choose local foods and increase publicity for local producers. In the past, the Mercantile would label foods produced within the county or bordering counties as "local," and food produced within a 600-mile radius as "regional." But after observing other stores' labeling techniques and discussing the program in a committee meeting, the Mercantile began a revamped program. Employees added products' ZIP codes to the store's software system to calculate how far each item has come. Now they label any food produced within a 200-mile radius as "local," and mark it with exactly how many miles it traveled to the Mercantile's shelves. "It's really cool to see a product that only traveled three miles to get to the store," Wells says.
As part of Miles to the Merc, large photos of local producers will be displayed next to their products, so customers can have a stronger connection with where their food comes from. Farmers are also invited to hand out samples and meet the customers who buy their products. Wells says one local farm includes a small flier in its egg cartons, giving little updates on what's going on around the farm. Customers have a strong response to the personal communication, she says, because it reflects a lifestyle so different from the one they're experiencing. "People really do love it."
To raise support and awareness for local farmers, the Mercantile allows a local community-supported agriculture program to use the store for distribution without charge. Wells says that although members buy vegetables from the CSA, they end up finishing their shopping at the Mercantile. The Mercantile will also begin allowing the local farmers' market to convene weekly in the store's parking lot this spring.
Halweil says New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., has some of the most innovative food-miles marketing he has seen. Last Easter, he says, employees hung up posters showing a map of New Zealand and a map of Oregon, asking, "How far away would you like your Easter lamb to come fromâ8,000 or 150 miles?"
"Apparently, the store's sales of organic lamb jumped," Halweil says. "And the campaign simultaneously educated folks about how far basic food items can travel, even when they are produced locally."
At Provisions Natural Foods Market in Sag Harbor, N.Y., Halweil says, one manager was considering a display with barrels full of fake oil to demonstrate how much energy is used to ship food long distances. But not all marketing needs to be so in-your-face. Halweil also suggests seasonal cooking classes to educate customers about what's in season locally, and how to prepare it.
Getting involved with a local foodpolicy council can also lead to changes, Halweil says, and highlight your store as a good role model in the community.
On the distribution side, Albert's Organics is also making changes to cut down on food miles. So even if a store turns to Alberts instead of a local grower, the distributor seeks out local and regional growers and makes its deliveries in the most efficient manner.
Frank McCarthy, vice president of marketing for Albert's, says this not only helps the company, since Albert's tries to make the most of every drop of fuel it uses, but also benefits consumers, because in-season, local foods are less expensive and fresher tasting. Albert's is also trying to encourage more land in more places to be transitioned to organic, making local organic sourcing more possible. Simi?larly, the Mercantile has sent speakers and donations to a local Growing Growers conference to help support the next generation of new organic farmers.
Wells says cutting down on food miles comes down to creative connections. "As a retailer, there are a lot of things you can do. It's important to do somethingâanythingâto connect customers with the people who grow their food."
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXVIII/number 5/p.16,18