Buying local: Does purchasing from chains count?

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Wal-Mart’s Supercenter on 8th Street is just one of many of the chain’s stores which offers customers a selection of locally grown produce.

Wal-Mart’s Supercenter on 8th Street is just one of many of the chain’s stores which offers customers a selection of locally grown produce.

Buying locally has become a rallying cry for people interested in healthy eating and in protecting the environment.

And now, national chains are getting on board — produce from Colorado farms can be found at King Soopers, Safeway and even at international retailing giant, Wal-Mart.

But some “buy local” proponents claim that local goods should be bought from local, independent businesses — not from large chains whose profits go to stockholders and CEOs instead of local communities.

Wal-Mart claims its practice — you can buy Palisade peaches at their stores, as well as San Luis Valley potatoes and other produce from Eaton — is beneficial for everyone.

“It’s good for the farmers, because we’re buying large amounts of produce from them — the amount they can’t sell in farmers’ markets or roadside stands,” said Bill Wertz, divisional director of community and media relations. “It’s good for us, because we save money on shipping and transportation. And it’s good for our customers.”

Wal-Mart buys locally whenever possible, but the emphasis on local produce has grown as it adds more grocery stores to its supercenters.

“We recognize that customers are looking for fresh, local produce,” he said. “So we’re accelerating those purchases.”

The retailer — despite its reputation for buying cheap goods overseas — is actually one of the leading purchasers of U.S. products, Wertz said. And that doesn’t only include boosting farmers’ bottom lines.

“We started buying Orange Glow products when it was a local, Denver company,” he said. “And now they have boosted their sales to become an international company. That’s in no small part due to Wal-Mart’s purchases of their products.”

The move toward local is a move toward sustainable business practices, with an eye both on consumer behavior and the company bottom line. Many products are purchased solely for a few stores in a small region, Wertz said.

“It depends on the region,” he said. “We buy local barbecue sauce some places; we buy local tortillas and salsa in other places.”

Farm Fresh Direct, a consortium of 28 family owned farms in the San Luis Valley, is one of Wal-Marts suppliers. The farmers sell organic potatoes, onions and sweet potatoes. FFD is the nation’s largest supplier of organic potatoes, according to the company’s Web site.

“We benefit from sales to national stores solely by volume,” said Lee Jackson, organizational manager for the farm sales group. “It’s a way to sell more than we would to small grocery stores. We don’t really participate in farmers’ markets.”

Buying local — by any means — is a move in the right direction, said Catamount Institute Director Eric Cefus. But it doesn’t complete the sustainability picture.

“I support buying locally, wherever you can buy locally,” he said. “So many people don’t have time to stop by farmers’ markets and then go shop elsewhere too. So buying locally is a move toward sustainability — as long as they are actually buying locally and not just advertising that they are.”

Buying locally owned produce is only sustainable within the right framework, he said.

“There are people who believe that to be completely sustainable, you have to keep the money as well as the goods in the local community,” he said. “Look at it like this: our grandparents were sustainable. They only ate peaches when they were in season; they only ate asparagus when it was in season. Now, if it’s January and you want peaches or asparagus, you can have them.”

Only buying in-season produce, in the region in which it is grown, requires a vast amount of education, Cefus said.

“We’ve gotten away from being educated about our food, and about the choices we make,” he said. “If you decide you have to have Icelandic water, then you can buy it. And the water is put in a glass bottle, trucked to the port, shipped here and put on a truck, and another truck, and another truck. Local water is better by the time that Icelandic water takes a 5,000-mile trip.”

Keeping money in the community makes sense, as does diversifying food sources from a few large, corporate farms.

“If you buy from a local company, that money is spent around this community, it doesn’t go to Arkansas or somewhere else,” Cefus said. “And if we can diversify the food sources away from big farms, then it helps not only environmentally, but also from a national security standpoint.”

The nation’s food supply is centered around 3 percent to 4 percent of farmers producing 85 percent of food, he said. That creates an inviting target for terrorists.

“I think we have to diversity — and supporting local farmers, however you do it — is the way to diversity,” he said.

National group Local Harvest says that most produce is picked up to seven days before it arrives on shelves — and is shipped an average of 1,500 miles before being sold.

“We can only afford to do this now because of the artificially low energy prices,” the group says on its Web site, www.localharvest.org. “We do this to the detriment of small farmers by subsidizing large scale, agri-business oriented agriculture.”

Buying local produce from a large chain doesn’t benefit the farmer, the group said.

“Only 18 cents of every dollar, when buying at large supermarket, go to the grower,” according to Local Harvest. “82 cents go to various unnecessary middlemen. Cut them out of the picture …”

Wal-Mart says it is supporting local farmers, and disagrees that money spent at its stores goes outside the community.

“We have millions of shareholders,” Wertz said. “Our stock is in retirement plans and 401(k)s around the country — if we do well, they do well. Our stores employ 200 to 300 people — they spend their wages locally. It’s a small world these days.”