In Arkansas, supporting local food is much more than shopping at farmers markets. Food wholesalers are sourcing and incorporating locally grown vegetables, fruits and more as part of a widespread initiative to use local foods as much as possible – an initiative that has many rewards.
Two food wholesalers – Ben E. Keith Foods and U.S. Foods – have made concerted efforts to source more local food, aided in part by the Arkansas Agriculture Department’s Arkansas Grown program, which helps potential buyers locate Arkansas producers. The website Arkansasgrown.org lists hundreds of growers by name and city/county, and includes a handy data search that pinpoints each organization’s location around the state.
Brad May, category manager of produce and dairy for Ben E. Keith Foods, says the use of locally grown produce has always been a goal for his company, but the process is easier than ever due to Arkansas Grown. His company defines “local” as produce grown in Arkansas, or items that are produced and/or manufactured right in the state.
“Sourcing locally has always been important, and with the help of the Arkansas Grown program, we’ve been able to develop a network of growers,” May says. “During the past six years, we’ve worked to maintain an inventory of locally grown produce items. Our network of local items is ever-expanding and currently includes chicken, rice, eggs, milk and cream, tomatoes, cucumber, squash, zucchini, and bell peppers.”
In the spring of 2016, U.S. Foods started its program to source from Arkansas growers. First, the company began with sweet potatoes and tomatoes, and then added berries. Through these partnerships, U.S. Foods is helping make locally grown food available to the restaurants it distributes to.
May says that buying local offers many benefits, for both consumers and the state’s growers.
“The freshness of the product is improved, and the price is often better due to the lower freight costs,” May says. “We’re able to use our own fleet of trucks to pick up products, which helps reduce shipping costs.”
According to May, it’s common for smaller specialty growers to be adept at growing phenomenal produce but less equipped to handle shipping issues, which can be difficult and costly. Ben E. Keith Foods works to make life easier for local specialty crop growers both large and small.
“We sometimes pick up directly from the farm so the grower need not worry about shipping and logistics,” May says. “This frees them up to focus on making sure their products are top quality.”
For many farmers, partnering with food wholesalers makes it easier to do business in new markets, such as foodservice. Many farmers who provide their products to U.S. Foods have tried to sell to restaurants before, but they were met with the challenges from short growing seasons and supply amount. The company helps them overcome these challenges by offering restaurants consistent produce sizes for every dish and guaranteed availability.
By sourcing local foods from Arkansas farmers, chefs receive seasonal food, giving them the success and satisfaction of promoting the philosophy to eat local and fresh. Through their commitment to go straight to the Arkansas producer, U.S. Foods and other wholesalers provide the freshest, best-tasting foods while also supporting the local economy.