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Grocery store chains invest in locally grown food

Local apple display at Wegmans Market. (Photo by Wegmans)When it comes to sharing America’s growing infatuation with fresh, local food, Wegmans Food Markets puts its money where its mouth is.

The regional grocery chain runs a 50-acre research farm near New York’s Canandaigua Lake specializing in sustainable, organic growing practices. CEO Danny Wegman often blogs about the 5-year-old farm, and in August he finally opened it to public tours.

Sure, the Wegmans farm can only supply veggies to two nearby stores, but it serves as a living symbol for the privately owned chain of 80 mid-Atlantic supermarkets. Its mission: Local, healthy food aimed at everyday families. To reinforce the message further, the company website gives shoppers a running schedule of when local fruit and vegetables will arrive at stores in their state.

It turns out that local apples and squash carry a hefty economic wallop. While large food chains struggle with slow sales, Wegmans thrives.

In 2011, its revenue hit $5.6 billion, up 8.7 percent. And the fastest-growing segment at Wegmans markets is organic — mostly local — produce. Sales of produce have swelled at least 10 percent every year for the last five years.

It’s not alone. On the national front, Whole Foods Market, the upscale natural and local foods grocer, is doing just as well. It posted some of the best results in its 32-year history in the third quarter ending July 1, 2012, with net income up 32 percent.

Love them or hate them, locavores have gone mainstream, shedding their elitist, niche image. Health advocates, doctors, and first lady Michelle Obama are convincing Americans across income groups to eat more fresh fruit and vegetables. And fresh is increasingly interpreted to mean locally grown.

As a result, local foods sales are booming. They grew from $4 billion in 2002 to $5 billion in 2007 to $11 billion in 2011, according John Ikerd, University of Missouri agriculture economics professor emeritus. Three-quarters of specialty food retailers say that “local” is the most influential product claim in 2012, according to the National Association of the Specialty Food Trade.

Dept. of Agriculture data backs it up: retail sales of fresh produce averaged growth of 15 percent a year between 1997 and 2007, while sales of organic fruits and vegetables increased over fourfold from 1997 to 2008, to $21.1 billion in 2008. (Not all organic food is local.)

Why go local? Produce you buy at the grocery store typically travels more than 1,500 miles from farm to table, says Harvard Medical School’s Center for Health and the Global Environment. But a road less travelled could mean better nutrition.

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