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Supermarket Chains Show More Interest In Local Food

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Courtesy Vermont Fresh Network
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Local food producers are finding more interest in their products among large commercial and institutional buyers.

It wasn’t exactly a romantic event, but it was billed as a matchmaking opportunity, complete with a "speed dating" session.

For the dozens of Vermont food producers and buyers in attendance, though, the gathering at Vermont Technical College this week was strictly business. 

“I was very excited to come down and expand my reach beyond Chittenden and Washington County and get some of our products down south or even regionally,” said farmer-producer Beth Whiting.

She and her husband own Maple Wind Farm in Huntington and Richmond, which specializes in pasture and grass fed meats.

On the buyers' side were many familiar co-ops along with wholesale and institutional food suppliers. But there were also some relatively new faces to the local foods scene: the big chain supermarkets.

“We see an emerging trend that’s really growing and we have to get better at that,” said Scott Evans, vice president of grocery and merchandising at Price Chopper.

Evans said that trend is increasing customer demand for local products and an expectation that even a large supermarket chain with 135 stores should carry them.

"As we start to work with the local areas like Vermont and the towns that we're in it's really important for us to find those products and partner with those different suppliers." - Scott Evans, vice president of grocery and merchandising at Price Chopper

“There’s this loyalty that customers have with those products and it makes absolute sense because it strengthens their communities,” he explained. “As we start to work with the local areas like Vermont and the towns that we’re in it’s really important for us to find those products and partner with those different suppliers.”

For a company used to working with large food distributors, one challenge is adapting the company’s supply chain to deal with small producers.  

“Obviously when we work through distributors it makes life a bit easier for us, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense."

“Obviously when we work through distributors it makes life a bit easier for us, but sometimes it doesn’t make sense,” said Evans. "We’re trying to find the flexibility and the ability to work with partners to get their products to our stores in whatever fashion works best for both of us.”

Representatives from Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets were also at this week’s event.

From the producer’s perspective, the challenges of supplying a large chain store include the time it takes to increase production. Producing a premium product also costs more, so there’s the question of meeting the price point for both the store and the producer.

Demand for local food is also happening on an institutional level. 

This week the food service giant Sodexo filled a full-time position dedicated to increasing the share of Vermont products the company provides to schools and hospitals.

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