A food research expert is adopting a wait-and-see approach to a marketing push by Safeway grocery chain to provide shelf space for locally grown food.
“It's too soon to know, but it's a good idea to run that,” said Lakehead University professor Connie Nelson, who heads up the Food Security Research Network. “I think the solution will be in naming what is local.”
The California-based grocer is rolling out new promotions of local products at its Canadian stores with a similar production at its U.S. Outlets. Six stores in northwestern Ontario, including Thunder Bay, will make locally grown food available.
Nelson said there's no question of Thunder Bay consumers' appetite for locally grown and raised food. The city has four successful farmers' markets, including one that opens at mid-week.
“There is some allegiance in the region to buying local. The tipping point is one too many scares about E. coli bacteria getting into food. If they buy local they know who it comes from.”
The Safeway campaign with its Western Canadian stores will be split into three separate regions, including “Manitoba Grown,” “B. C. Grown” with a “Canadian Grown” label promoting suppliers in Saskatchewan, Alberta and northwestern Ontario. Safeway's in-store campaign will include reference maps showing the location of key local farmers and point-of-sale material that tell the story of local farmers.
“Nearly a third of Safeway's produce comes from local sources,” said Geoff White, Safeway's vice-president for produce, in a June 10 release. “This new initiative will direct our customers to our extensive selection of premium-quality, locally-grown produce at competitive prices.”
The company said buying local food ensures quality and cuts greenhouse emissions by “limiting transportation miles.”
From where Safeway will source local food is hard to tell, said Nelson. “I think it would be fantastic if they take local produce, but I don't know if local means local.”
With most chain stores having their own preferred suppliers, so it's too early to tell how it will impact area farmers, said Nelson. “But the interest is there.”
Last January, her research network staged a 'Growing Your Opportunities' workshop on how to start a business with local produce. It attracted 50 people, many under the age of 30.
“There are a growing number of producers locally that have food available that could be grown by Safeway.”
Nelson said a handful of area producers have made some headway in getting onto store shelves. Thunder Oak Cheese is in Safeway and fledging flour mill operator Jeff Burke is distributing bags to some local bakeries and an independent grocer in Kakabecka Falls and Quality Market, a family-owned Thunder Bay grocer, has started buying local beef.