As more consumers insist on fresh, locally grown food, restaurants and grocery stores are trying to fill that demand.
The owner of Harveys supermarkets just announced a new local sourcing policy that focuses on supporting local growers and farmers in Georgia — and across the Southeast. Southeastern Grocers, parent company for Harveys, Bi-Lo and Winn-Dixie stores, is committed to selling only produce from local farms and orchards when possible.
“We are focused on providing our customers stunning fresh produce, which has been grown by our own neighbors, families and communities in the Southeast,” said Southeastern Grocers President/CEO Ian McLeod in a prepared statement.
About 15 people representing Harveys went on a tour Friday at Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley as a way of promoting the initiative and to help Harveys executives and produce staff understand where some local food comes from and how it’s grown. Some of the entourage had already visited farms in South Carolina and other locations in Georgia. Harveys is already selling Georgia peaches and other local produce in its Middle Georgia stores, a Harveys representative said. But the tour helps bolster the grocer’s commitment.
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Award-winning celebrity chef Curtis Stone of the Food Network, who shares an interest in fresh food, was part of the 700-mile tour and was at Lane orchards. He encouraged Harveys’ workers to learn more about peaches from the Lane owners.
“We are out here with the experts, and I know you have a bunch of questions,” Stone told them before the orchard tour. “You are constantly asked those questions in the store. ... I want you to walk out of here today really understanding why Georgia peaches are the best.”
Lane Southern Orchard has about 300,000 trees, Duke Lane Jr. said. He led the group through the orchard as he explained the process from planting the trees to picking, packing and shipping the fuzzy fruit. The decision about where to pick each day is usually made late the day before, he said, so the peaches are picked at their peak.
“The whole thing is to get this peach as ripe as you can without getting it too soft, which will create bruising” by the time it gets to the grocery store, Lane said.
Stone asked several questions during the tour, including: “What makes the perfect peach? What are you looking for?”
The perfect peach should have the best color at the largest size each variety is supposed to have, Lane said. The farm has about 35 different varieties. Sometimes they choose varieties because of feedback from grocery store produce managers who might say customers want a bigger peach or a sweeter peach, he said.
Lane orchards doesn’t pick its peaches as early as growers in some other states, such as California, who have to ship their fruit farther, Lane said.
“This is very rare, guys,” Stone said as he bit into a peach he plucked from a tree. “To be picking it this ripe is very, very rare. Normally, in other orchards I’ve been to in other parts of the world, they are picking them so hard you can hardly bite into them.”
The trend of grocery stores and restaurants providing more locally grown products has been on the upswing for the past few years.
“For many consumers, a sense of direct linkage to the producer and a desire to support the local economy are also important,” according an article in Choices magazine.
Several chains, including Wal-Mart and Whole Foods Market, have kicked off efforts to sell local food, the article said. According to Wal-Mart’s website, 20 percent of its fresh fruit and vegetables sold during the summer are produced in-state.
“These local sourcing efforts are yielding not only cost savings but also environmental benefits and positive impacts on local economies,” it said.
Independent stores and smaller grocery chains usually have more flexibility in sourcing local foods — and in getting the word out to consumers.
Grocery stores aren’t the only ones looking to provide locally grown food.
Saralyn Collins, owner of Grow restaurant in Macon, relaunched her business in 2014 with a revamped menu that included fresh ingredients and as much locally grown or locally raised food as possible. She agreed the trend is on the uptick.
“I think the Georgia Grown program has been a huge reason for that,” Collins said.
The Georgia Grown program is a marketing and economic development program of the Georgia Department of Agriculture. Its goal is to bring together producers, processors, agritourism, consumers and others to help agribusinesses grow.
Collins gets many of her ingredients from small mom and pop kind of farms, but she said she might buy locally grown products from grocery stores “during the winter months when it’s really hard to find local farmers around here who don’t have a lot of variety.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I think the more help we give local farmers, the better, whatever source that comes from. It also helps not having so much fuel cost. So I’m all for it.”