September 1, 2017

Where was this grown? Pilot program empowers locavore shoppers

A sign identifies produce from Sun Valley Orchards in Swedesboro, N.J., a 3,000 acre farm that's been conserved under a farmland preservation deed. ROBERT LAYMAN / STAFF PHOTO

RUTLAND — Customers at Tops Friendly Market in Rutland are beginning to benefit from a pilot marketing program that supplies customers with information about where their food is grown and sourced — from the farm to their forks.

Launched at the end of July, the Local Food Marketing Program is a joint effort by WhatsGood, a food technology company based in Providence, Rhode Island, and the Tops produce team.

A nearly 100 years old, Tops Friendly Market has 173 locations and five franchise locations in a four-state area: upstate New York; Northern Pennsylvania; Western Vermont; and North Central Massachusetts.

“It’s a program that helps retailers and markets, providing transparency into local sources. Furthermore, to better tell the story to shoppers of where their food is coming from,” said Jennifer Goggin, director of retail at WhatsGood. “We reached out to Tops. We felt that our program’s offerings would be a good fit for their markets, as they work with approximately 200 local growers. We wanted to highlight their local initiative by enhancing value to both them and the farms.”

The program connects customers to the farmers through a variety of marketing tools, including both digital and traditional printed signage next to the produce. In-store, customers can use tablets in the produce section. The iPads provide photographs and information about the farm and farmers that grew the produce. In addition, there’s a free mobile application that can be downloaded, allowing customers to navigate local produce prior to shopping, furthering their options to eat local by knowing the market’s daily inventory.

“This is a new thing, for customers to have a tablet in the produce section. The feedback I have received from managers within the branches that have implemented our technology have reported that their customers are excited about ‘meeting’ the farmers and that they are enjoying the dual nature of being able to access knowledge about their produce either in-store or at home with the app. The program is user friendly and intuitive,” Goggin said.

Tops Friendly Market generates $3 million annually and employs about 15,000 associates. The produce team plan objective was to generate awareness for Tops Friendly Markets within the communities where the program’s pilot has been launched: Rutland; Elizabethtown, New York; and Warrensburg, New York. The pilot program lasts through October.

“This program differentiates our partner retailers because the information is in real time with a local tag. This program supports local farmers, customers, and the store; if the program drives sales, the market will continue to purchase locally, therefore increasing the market for local growers,” Goggin said.

Eating local means more money stays within the community and stimulates the local economy, program planners say.

“As the neighborhood market, we are really trying to zone in and target in on what customers locally want, by providing speciality items geared towards the wants and the needs of the community,” said Scott Tyo, produce category manager at Tops Markets, LLC. “We are still in the test phase of the program. We hope to continue the program after the launch and expand into more locations. We are excited to tie our customers to the growers — local is very important to our customers, and we thought this idea was both interesting and innovative, so we wanted to give it a try.”

The Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture estimates supermarket produce purchased in the United States travels about 1,500 miles to get from the farm to the customer’s fork.

“The word local is one of the most sacred words in this business, and it’s our most important word. It can be, at times, more important than the words organic or natural. I talk with a lot of farmers, and what resonates the most with me is when they say things like, “I grow strawberries and I feed them to my family.” You never meet a farmer who doesn’t feed their crop to their family. It’s all about family first and quality crops,” Tyo said.

Produce Manager Kevin Coarse, at Tops in Rutland, said “locally sourced” is a phrase that means different things to different people. With 34 years of experience in the produce industry, he considers locally sourced produce to be grown within a 200-mile radius of the market.

“I think this is a great program. Anything new that can further educate our customers — especially by providing a hands-on device, is great help for them. It’s still a work in progress, yet I have seen customers engage in the new program, and it’s a great product,” Coarse said.

The locavore movement is gaining recognition and access, connecting producers and consumers in the same geographic region. This program will develop a more self-reliant and resilient food network, improving community and local economies and creating a positive impact on the environment by reducing the carbon footprint, program developers say.

“It’s one thing to say that our produce is local, yet it’s another thing to be able to prove it — that’s priceless!” Tyo said.

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