You may have tried Brian and Leslie Axdahl’s Stillwater-grown vegetables. If you bought sweet corn or green beans at Byerly’s or tried Crave restaurant’s creamed corn or ordered the sesame quinoa and green bean salad at Birchwood Café, there’s a good chance the Axdahls had a hand in growing your dinner.
The Axdahls don’t sell their veggies to any of those retailers. They work through distributors like Bix, Sysco, H. Brooks, U.S. Foodservice, Lund Food Holdings and Supervalu. In fact, much of the locally produced food offered by Twin Cities restaurants, supermarkets, co-ops and institutional cafeterias is purchased from some kind of middleman, and the middleman plays no small role in determining whether local food makes it from the farm to our tables.
“There’s a trend towards more centralization and fewer direct relationships with farmers and retailers themselves,” said JoAnne Berkenkamp, local foods program director at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Although many independent restaurants foster direct relationships with farmers, supermarkets and chain restaurants typically get their local product from large distributors.
Potatoes from Hugh’s Garden in Moorhead, Minnesota wait to be shipped from Co-op Partners Warehouse.
Even Tracy Singleton, owner of Birchwood Café, regularly uses distributors for her farm-to-table focused restaurant, “If we can get something directly from producers, we start with that, and then we go to Bix,” she said, referring to the St. Paul-based produce distributor known for its local selection.Offering local food is a challenge for distributors. Minnesota’s climate is partly to blame – one short season to California or Florida’s two or three seasons – and so is finding growers able to deliver large, consistent quantities of standard-sized veggies. There are also institutional hurdles. Food safety is a big one.
Bix Vice President Duane Pfleiger said the new Food Safety and Accountability Act puts a huge amount of pressure on distributors to nudge up their standards. Already, he said some of Bix’s chain-restaurant clients have agreements with large shippers preventing them from purchasing produce from Minnesota farmers. Those agreements are about safety certification and about tracing food back to the source, so that if someone gets sick, the retailer knows exactly where their product came from.
Bix offers trainings on how to become GAP, Good Agricultural Practices, certified, but Pfleiger said it isn’t easy to muster farmer interest. “The industry as a whole has gone through very tough economic times, and still are, so to invest time and money into these programs, it’s a serious challenge,” he said. Non-local producers with year-long growing seasons have more resources for certification and audits.
Lori Zuidema shows off shallots from Harmony Valley Farm in Viroqua, Wisconsin waiting to be shipped from Co-op Partners Warehouse.
Price is another barrier. Mega-distributors like Roundy’s or Cub supplier Supervalu won’t sell local food unless consumers are willing to pay the difference between Minnesota and California prices.
“If a bunch of consumers come requesting a product, our store directors will research to see if it’s a viable option,” said Supervalu spokesperson Mike Siemienas. “We do what we can to support local companies, but we need to ensure that our customers want the product.”
Since many Twin Cities residents buy their groceries from Cub and Rainbow, those food dollars matter. “The market will meet the demand that’s being voiced,” Berkenkamp said, but questions remain. “Can those businesses engage the farming community in a way that is beneficial to farmers, that pays them a fair price, that treats them fairly?”
“It’s not going to swing 100 percent to local,” said Phillip Brooks, owner of New Brighton produce distributor H. Brooks. Without advances in season extension or changed consumer expectations, he said, distributors will continue to fill in with non-local product. Co-op Partners warehouse, a distributor of organic and local groceries partnered with the Wedge co-op, spends around 15 percent of their produce purchasing dollars locally. Bix sells two and one-half to three percent locally produced food. Co-op Partners sales representative Andy Wright said, “The amount we handle might be higher than anyone else, but it’s still not very much.”