Chain Grocers Put a Face on Food

The switch to homegrown produce links shoppers to their region and its farmers.

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Locally grown produce is in vogue as even the biggest grocers try to appeal to shoppers and save on fuel costs. Among the big names selling homegrown food are Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Tesco, and Wal-Mart. As gas prices remain high and the popularity of local food grows—the number of local farmers markets has more than doubled in the past decade, the Department of Agriculture says—grocers are reviving the old practice of buying from smaller regional farms.


Wal-Mart's former produce plan involved an international network of large farms with which shoppers had little or no contact. For the most part, customers didn't even know where their foods were coming from. The company, now the nation's largest buyer of locally grown produce, labels all its produce—every peach and potato—by its state of origin. And it doesn't stop at the store. On the company's website, customers can look up farms to see pictures of their owners and read their stories, and view an interactive map.

When shopping for produce, customers have higher expectations than for other goods, says Kelly O'Keefe, professor and executive education director in Virginia Commonwealth University's advertising program, Brandcenter. They "don't want the bottom-of-the-barrel product," O'Keefe says. Chain grocers and big box stores are catering to that mentality, he says, by revamping their produce sections to reflect the region in which the goods are sold, while also continuing to import produce from abroad.

Celia Gould, director of Idaho's Department of Agriculture, says she has heard from many shoppers who say "they love buying produce that came from right here in Idaho."

Some Wal-Mart competitors are also putting a face on food. Safeway has partnered with several states to sell regionally grown food, using labels like "Colorado Proud" on produce. At Tesco, shoppers can recommend farmers they like to buy from. Whole Foods features farmers by region and facilitates "local producer loans" at interest rates of 5 to 9 percent to fund farming projects that could ultimately result in local produce being sold at a Whole Foods store. Each project is displayed online with photos and project details.