Big grocery stores stocking shelves with more local products

Farmers markets have surfed a wave of popularity, and now, larger grocery stores are tapping into consumers' passion for locally made products, too. Stores like BI-LO, Ingles and Whole Foods, which have carried items from local producers for years, are stepping up their efforts and making sure the public knows about it.

It's a wise move. In a 2012 Mintel International study, 52 percent of U.S. consumers said that buying local produce is more important than buying organic, a shift from several years before.

"For years people wanted organic," said Martin Eubanks, assistant commissioner for the South Carolina Department of Agriculture, "but then people realized organic is part of it, but we've got all these other good local products, too.

"Consumers have zoned in because they know food is fresher, they know it's closer to home, they know it's good for the environment and there is a trust factor with that local producer," he said.

In South Carolina, sales of local produce rose by $27 million between 2007 and 2012, according to the last agricultural census. The demand has fueled the growth of the Department of Agriculture's SC Certified program, which promotes South Carolina products in restaurants, at farmers markets and in retail outlets, Eubanks said. The program started in 2007 with fewer than 100 members. Today, it has 1,700.

That means more dollars stay in South Carolina, Eubanks said. But the benefit could be even greater. In Georgia and North Carolina, food dollars spent on local products total around $17 million, while in South Carolina it's about $10 million.

Some of the discrepancy can be attributed to the size of each state, Eubanks said, but other factors are at work as well. Western North Carolina, for instance, has a robust local foods movement in place to support local producers.

Ingles dietician Leah McGrath said her company has found many local producers through the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project and Blue Ridge Food Ventures. Both offer local producers help in getting started, growing their businesses and getting products retail ready.

"They've really been a catalyst for the local food movement in North Carolina," McGrath said. "And they've been a really important piece in educating farmers about standards retailers have to meet."

Eubanks said the state is in the process of developing those infrastructures and pointed to efforts to create food hubs throughout the state.

He's thrilled to see large grocery stores stepping up local efforts. Many have long carried local products, he said, but they haven't always let consumers know. SC Certified is bridging that gap by helping stores and farmers markets find and highlight local products.

"There's opportunity there and there's growth potential," Eubanks said.


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