Demand for local fresh food is up in Pittsburgh
John McClelland, vice president of procurement and strategic development at Paragon Foods, checks a carton of heirloom tomatoes that carries stickers indicating they were grown or packed by a local firm.
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In the past decade, growing consumer interest in buying local and buying fresh has fueled a rebuilding of a regional food supply infrastructure in Western Pennsylvania, which long ago outsourced the bulk of its produce purchases to corporate farms in states such as Florida and California.
New farmers markets have opened all over the region. Established farms are investing in projects to extend the growing season and allow them to supply major, local customers. Retailers and restaurants are touting local ingredients and products. And food hubs ranging from co-ops in the East End to a planned processing facility in Fayette County are helping distribute and, eventually, package local goods for broader consumption.
This is the first in a two-part series examining the commercialization of the local-foods movement.
Part II: The challenge is getting locally grown and healthy foods into the hands of the region's poor.
More opportunities could be sprouting, too. The federal government is retooling menu requirements for schools and an overhaul of agricultural legislation seems likely to include more incentives for things such as community food hubs to help farmers connect with companies and schools that might buy their goods.
During a U.S. Department of Agriculture webinar last month, Deborah Kane, national director of the department's Farm-To-School program, said the ultimate goal is that "one day, American schoolchildren across the U.S. will have daily access to local and regional foods."
Dave Lazear, vice president of sales and marketing at food distributor Paragon Foods in Lawrenceville, said K-12 schools across the region that are putting next year's contracts out for bid have started to ask if vendors use locally sourced goods.
While those efforts are just starting to gain momentum, progress in growing sales of the region's homegrown food elsewhere has been easier to track.
Paragon Foods, for one, had been sourcing almost entirely from out-of-state shippers back in 2000. But between 2009 and 2011, the company's local purchases increased 116 percent. The food distributor now purchases about $7 million annually from more than 30 regional farms and suppliers.
Of the company's total business, President Elaine Bellin conceded, "It is a small percentage -- but it's a growing percentage." This year local purchases could rise by another half million dollars.
The company's local buying push didn't necessarily start out with the goal to make the region's food supply sustainable or to make Paragon part of the national discussion on Americans eating healthier and spending their money in their own neighborhoods.
Ms. Bellin said the main reason for sourcing regionally was simple: "Local foods are better tasting. That was always the philosophy behind it."
It didn't hurt that a major Paragon Foods customer was also an early adopter of the buy local movement in Western Pennsylvania. Among other things, the Eat'n Park Hospitality Group Inc. -- which operates a chain of restaurants as well as a cafeteria food service business out of its headquarters at The Waterfront -- really wanted better-tasting tomatoes.
Brooks Broadhurst, senior vice president of food and beverage for Eat'n Park, said the project was a hard slog at first. Farmers weren't sure they could trust the company, which last year had about $355 million in total revenue, to follow through on orders if its buyers found less expensive produce elsewhere at harvest time.
"We were viewed as big business," Mr. Broadhurst said.
There were also issues inside the company. It was easy to persuade the chefs at the food service operations to embrace local produce. But the restaurant staff was a little more hesitant, even if the out-of-state tomatoes designed to transport well seemed a little flavorless.
He likes to tell a story about a group of regular customers who brought their own tomatoes during the summer. One day, the group stopped sourcing from home. "Your tomatoes now taste just as good as mine," one told a district manager.
Last year, Eat'n Park spent $25 million on goods from local growers and vendors, accounting for about 20 percent of its total spending, Mr. Broadhurst said. For the most part, the company defines local as within 125 miles of Paragon's warehouse, although some of that "local" spending came in other markets where it has food service operations.
That's good news for the local economy and for those who think fresh tomatoes taste better than those bred to ship across several states.
Still, a healthy, local food infrastructure may have to learn something from the big corporate farms, which have had to develop systems for tracking the life cycle of every product from planting to harvest and beyond. At a time when there have been major recalls of lettuce exposed to listeria and problems with green onions making diners ill, more customers are demanding traceability.
In Eat'n Park's first years of sourcing produce locally, there wasn't a lot of focus on tracking the life cycle of the goods, Mr. Broadhurst said, beyond the fact that management met with all its farmers and visited their operations. Now the company is happy to see growing use of Good Agricultural Practices audits, which are voluntary, independent checks of produce suppliers and their food handling practices done through the USDA, as well as third-party audits done by outside companies.
"Everyone would love to say that local is safer, but we don't know that," Mr. Broadhurst said.
A few years ago, Paragon Foods began printing up labels for all of the regional growers and vendors in its distribution system, giving it the ability to track every box of vegetables back to the source. Paragon is now working with its farmers to have third-party audits done. The distributor is offering to pay for the audits, and about a dozen farms had signed up by late spring, although the work will continue throughout the year.
Another major purchaser of regional produce, O'Hara grocer Giant Eagle, has begun requiring that local growers either obtain GAP certification or pass a third-party audit by the end of the 2012 season.
The grocery company, which uses about 100 local purveyors -- 75 or so of those are farmers -- also recognizes this could be a challenge for the small, often family-owned businesses.
"Giant Eagle will work with growers who need assistance to reach compliance by holding training and educational opportunities on the change in the auditing process," said spokesman Dick Roberts.
Even then, not all local farmers want to deal with those kind of hassles, Mr. Broadhurst said. Some would rather not sell to the bulk customers that require tomatoes or zucchini to be grown to specific sizes, sticking instead with sales through farm stands and the kind of outlets that bring in individual shoppers.
It's a trade-off.
"From a business standpoint, you can get more for your pound of tomatoes at the farm market," Mr. Broadhurst noted. "But you spend the day that way."
The fact that local farmers have options reflects growing demand for their products and the growing regional network.
Three years ago, Fayette County -- home to many farms focused on commodity crops like feed corn -- had no farmers markets. Now there are six, said Devan Grote, sustainable communities specialist with the Fay-Penn Economic Development Council, which has been promoting the markets.
One continuing theme in the growth of the region's local food production seems to be that it has been nudged along through a mix of public and private efforts, all with the goal of creating a sustainable -- and profitable -- industry.
The Penn's Corner Farm Alliance had been getting along for a few years as a small cooperative, distributing goods from about seven or eight farms. In 2007, the operation received a $45,000 USDA grant. That helped buy walk-in coolers, refrigerated trucks and office equipment.
"It was a make-or-break point," recalled Neil Stauffer, general manager of the farmer's cooperative on Hamilton Avenue in the East End.
From one employee, the co-op has grown to four full-time workers plus more seasonal staff, he said. At this point, the operation works with more than 30 farms. About half of its sales are to restaurants, with the other half going to customers of its Community-Supported Agriculture service that delivers produce for households through the growing season.
Mr. Stauffer recently attended an event in Chicago organized to bring those involved in so-called "food hubs" together. That wasn't a term that was around when Penn's Corner started, he said, but he's happy to connect with peers interested in helping local farmers reach more customers. In this region, he said Penn's Corner regularly connects with operations such as Clarion River Organics in Clarion County and Tuscarora Organic Growers Co-op in Fulton County.
Collaboration and networking are seen as critical in creating a local, varied food supply, and groups such as the 3-year-old Pittsburgh Food Policy Council have pulled together farmers, distributors, food banks, university researchers and government agencies all interested in using local foods to help drive economic development and create jobs; address nutrition and obesity issues; and even create an oasis in neighborhoods seen as "food deserts" because there are so few grocery stores.
In December, the council hosted its first Regional Food Policy Council Symposium. The group is now working to help set up more systems for farmers markets to process food assistance payments, said Heather Mikulas, who is chairman of the council as well as employed with Penn State Cooperative Extension.
Ms. Mikulas sees access to healthy, fresh foods as a way to make a community more livable as well as economically more resilient. "It's nice to just get to the point that the food movement is spreading beyond fancy restaurants and Whole Foods," she noted.
In a few weeks, the first tomatoes should be ready at Brenckle's Farms and Greenhouse in Butler. That's earlier than previous years, but now the farm is using a new four-acre, covered growing area that it installed in response to growing demand for local produce.
"Its main purpose is to extend the season," said Greg Brenckle.
Brenckle's, a family-owned operation whose website tells of founder Alfred C. Brenckle selling produce to fruit and vegetable wholesalers in the Strip District more than 80 years ago, recently welcomed a crew of Eat'n Park employees. They helped plant fields of peppers and zucchini that will later be used in the restaurants.
Never underestimate the power of marketing. The crew included dishwashers as well as store managers, Mr. Brenckle said, all of whom can later tell customers that they helped plant the produce for the salads being served.
"The people want local stuff," said Mr. Brenckle.
He expects a third-party audit, which Paragon is helping set up, will be done in July. He knows some farmers consider those kind of new requirements a pain, but he just thinks it's part of doing business.
Asked if he expects to change any of the farm's practices as a result of the audit, Mr. Brenckle cheerfully answered with the skill of diplomat: "I think that we've learned there's always a way to improve a business and the way you do things."
First Published June 17, 2012 12:00 am