A new food co-op recently opened in the Jefferson County town of Clayton that showcases locally-sourced vegetables and other products. And big grocery chains like Hannaford and Wegman's are getting in on the trend, too, adding more of the region's products to store shelves.
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There's a flurry of activity around a small storefront on James Street in Clayton, N.Y. A table set outside offers tempting-looking tastes of all sorts of food, from meatballs to blueberry crisp to lentil hummus. As passersby stop for a treat, Rachel Roberts gets busy setting out beets that have been prepped for cooking. “We've found that even people that like organic food and local food, like convenience food, so we make a great salad mix, and we do beets ready to cook, and all kinds of good stuff like that.”
The shop is the new Clayton Food Co-op, and it spotlights locally-grown produce and all sorts of gourmet products from around New York, along with some items from outside the region. But the emphasis is definitely local, and that makes shopper Kate Breheny happy. She says she’s glad to be supporting the local economy—and farmers she might know personally, “I guess just being able to share in their…enjoyment of growing and everything.”
Co-op executive director Lori Arnot is also one of the store’s founders. She says Clayton needed a fresh, local food retailer, and the idea for the co-op came partly out of her family's interest in local foods: “When I eat good, clean food, my body feels better. And watching my family, the same thing. They are healthier when I feed them food that I know what's in it.” The co-op opened in May.
Bigger retailers are turning their eye toward local and organic foods. David Anderson is the store manager for Hannaford's supermarket in Watertown. He says he's seen increasing consumer demand for local and organic options: “We do have a lot of people who are eating healthier and organic, which kinda tells you that they're looking at what they're putting in the foods and things like that.”
These days, a stroll through the aisles turns up lots of items, mostly in the dairy and produce sections, with signs indicating they’re regionally produced.
Regional grocery chain Wegman's is getting in on the trend too. Jim Locicero at the company’s headquarters in Rochester is a buyer for the stores. It's his job to choose some of the local products that make it onto store shelves, including meats. He says the growing interest in local foods is really a return to how things used to be in the '60s and '70s, back when he started with the grocery company.
“Every city had their major processor for beef, lamb, veal and pork,” he says, “and we could visit those companies and pick out what we wanted. It was in the '80s when the large beef and pork suppliers kind of relocated to the Midwest for efficiencies, but more recently, local beef, pork and chicken has become more popular.”
All this is good news for the region's farmers. I met Stephen Winkler at his Lucki 7 Livestock Company in Rodman, in southern Jefferson County. As his hogs snuffle at our jeans and nibble at my boot laces, Winkler tells me he started supplying the Wegman's in DeWitt, outside Syracuse, a little over a year ago. He tells me his operation is a “sustainable” farm: “We use deep bedding, the animals are not solely on concrete. It's grass-based production – all the animals have access to outside and to grass.”
Locicero, from Wegman’s buyer Locicero says buying locally from farmers is also good for his company’s business. “Some of the customers most often say they like supporting the local economy and supporting local jobs and farmers. There's also a perceived safety comfort with local foods, locally produced foods.”
And Stephen Winkler says the Lucki 7 Livestock Company, in turn, supports a family-owned trucking company and a local meat processor, so dollars spent at a local farm like his often remain in the community. “Nothing”, he tells me, “gives me a better feeling than going to a local store and seeing our farm name, or having someone at a ball game come up you and tell you how good our eggs were, or chicken – it's something that we lost as agriculture changed in the last 50 years, the farmer lost that connection to the consumer, and certainly the consumer lost the connection to the farm.”
That's a connection that Winkler, the Clayton Food Co-op and many others in the grocery retail world are working to repair, as the local food economy grows.