Posted by: Bill Stoneman | August 19, 2009

‘Sustainably grown’ lettuce in the supermarket

There is a growing view that sustaining our food production and distribution system is going to get difficult in the years ahead – that energy prices or environmental degradation or safety issues or nutrition concerns are going to undermine a system in which food in mainly produced on very large and very specialized farms that make great use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides then is trucked as far as necessary to reach our supermarkets. If you buy this line of thinking, you might appreciate the Close to Home program at Hannaford supermarkets, a chain that serves a bit of Upstate New York and a big swath of New England.

Here’s what the company’s president and chief executive, Ron Hodge, says in a flyer about the program: “Not only does [sourcing produce close to home] help us discover and share great local legends, it lets us do our part to reduce our carbon footprint. By sourcing more local products, we reduce our emissions and contribute to a better planet. When you shop Close to Home, you support our local businesses and reduce your impact on the environment.”

Shoppers will decide for themselves whether the company’s actions match its words and whether the cost is worth it. We thought, however, it would be interesting to simply take a look at the produce section in mid-August, when New York and New England farmers are really humming.  We’ll try to take a look elsewhere as well in the next couple of weeks. And we note that Hannaford, owned by Belgium-based Delhaize Group, is one of two big chains in Albany, N.Y., where our backyard vegetable patch is. The other, Price Chopper, actually is much larger and makes its home around here.

The closest table to the door at a spacious Albany store seems to represent the Close to Home selection. Nice looking apples from a farm just miles away are in homey-looking paper bags. Beautiful basil from two counties away nearly shouts, “buy me.” Tomatoes, green and yellow squash, eggplant and green peppers sit here, too. This table might be 5% of the produce section. But then again, it might be less.

As for the rest of the produce department, organic labels are all over the place. A handful of products seem to be grown within perhaps 200 miles of here, like some grape tomatoes from Chelsea, Mass. Most, however, and remember, it’s mid-August, not January, are not from anything remotely close to home, to the extent that it’s possible to find information at all.  And some packaging claims might raise a few eyebrows. The paper label on the hard plastic box holding Tanimura & Antle lettuce, shipped in from Salinas, Calif., says “sustainably  grown.” And perhaps it is.  One might ask, however, about the sustainability of thick plastic packaging and cross-country shipping.

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