For North Carolinians across the state, finding fresh, local products is as easy as visiting their neighborhood grocery store.
At several national retailers, including Lowes Foods, Food Lion, Publix, Piggly Wiggly, Harris Teeter and more, consumers can find both fresh and processed products that were made in North Carolina, such as meat and produce, as well as dry goods.
“Lowes Foods has always supported local, and we are just thrilled that guests want to support it as well,” says Krista Morgan, locally grown account representative for the Winston- Salem-based grocery store. “Fads come and go throughout the years, but supporting local is just the right thing to do.”
Morgan works closely with area farmers to help them become retail ready in maintaining food safety and liability requirements, monitoring and tracking data, and more.
“I visit every new farm and existing farm as needed,” Morgan says. “I’m in direct contact with vendors at all times and farmers call me at the crack of dawn on the regular.”
Randy Maness, retail marketing specialist at the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDACS), works with grocers to promote local products and help them not only reserve a spot on the shelf, but also get noticed by consumers.
“We have several retailers that have a ‘Got to be NC’ location in the store, about a 4- to 8-foot section made up of NC products across the gamut,” Maness says. “We provide them with signage to help that section stand out and let shoppers know the products are made in the state.”
Maness explains that most of the time, growers and stores partner through word of mouth and by simply staying in touch.
“There’s really not a contract, per say,” he says. “We had a tomato grower providing produce to Harris Teeter, and all the buyer asked was that the grower stay in touch during tomato season and they would carry as much produce as possible.”
To help connect producers and grocers, NCDACS holds several events throughout the year. For example, the Flavors of Carolina event is held twice a year – once in Raleigh and once in Charlotte.
“It’s by invitation only and we have companies, whether a grower or processed food company, set up a booth to present their product to buyers,” Maness says.
Buyers are able to visit companies and spend some time with them before setting up an appointment. Morgan says that Lowes has also held local vendor fairs in new markets, where the store introduces 35-plus local vendors at a time.
“It’s unique to Lowes Foods and really awesome for the communities,” she says.
Another project unique to Lowes is the Carolina Crate program, which is the store’s version of a CSA, or Community Supported Agriculture. The program is on its seventh season, and local produce is packed on an actual farm, and then sent to each Lowes store for guests to pick up.
Consumers can purchase one of three shares, which vary from five to 11 weeks.
“The main reason behind the program is to support the smaller and midsize local farms while increasing the access that guests have to local produce,” Morgan says.
The Carolina Crate program is a great example of how carrying local is not only beneficial for producers and grocers, but consumers as well.
“It’s a full circle for the consumer, retailer and grower/processor,” Maness says. “With local being a hot topic these days, it allows the consumer to readily pick out those items and commodities that are being grown in North Carolina. If we help the grower and retailer, it helps the economy.”
Barbee Farms, a Century Farm in Concord that produces more than 40 different fruits and vegetables on 70 acres, has been working with Lowes Foods for several years, and now helps pack the Carolina Crate boxes.
“Lowes Foods was one of the first grocery stores to commit to us the idea of offering our produce in their stores,” says Brent Barbee, the farm manager. “We started small, servicing only a few stores within close proximity to our farm, and the relationship has grown over the years.”
He adds that as the popularity of eating local and knowing where food comes from has grown, it has strengthened the local economy and the relationship between farmer and consumer.
“Lowes Foods supporting the local farmer really bridges the gap between the producer and the end consumer,” Barbee says.