Local food movement is growing, but much produce still comes from afar

Steve Tarter

Local fruits and vegetables make up a growing industry, but our food is raised around the corner and around the world.

While the U.S. local food movement picks up market share, the amount of items arriving for grocery produce shelves from all over the world also is increasing.

"We definitely have a global food system," said Rich Pirog, associate director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University.

"We're seeing a net increase in the fruits and vegetables that are coming into this country while, at the same time, there's a burgeoning local market," Pirog said.

A visit to a local supermarket in search of fresh fruits and veggies is "like a tour of the world," said Pirog, whose center recently launched a Web site ( to help consumers find out where their food comes from.

"It's all about land costs and labor costs. Transportation isn't a major item, but it is significant," he said, referring to factors that figure into food production.

"It's not just about mileage," said Pirog, noting that Idaho potatoes that travel 1,000 miles by rail to Chicago can be more economical than those grown in nearby Wisconsin.

Some products will travel quite a distance before reaching the consumer, he said.

"I noticed a jar of canned peaches in the store where the fruit was grown in Spain but packed in Thailand. That's about 17,000 miles before it gets here (in Iowa)," said Pirog.

The trend over the past 20 years has been toward year-round produce for the U.S. consumer, said Gregg Proctor, a produce manager for the Kroger Co. speaking from company offices in Indianapolis.

"It used to be that you couldn't get strawberries at certain times of the year. Now we get them year-round," he said.

"Right now we're getting fresh apples out of New Zealand and tangerines from South America," Proctor said.

"Central American countries realize they can produce food for the North American market. The demand is here," he said.

Things tend to change quickly on the fresh food front, said Proctor. "We used to get all our pineapple out of Hawaii, but most of what we consume in this country now comes out of Costa Rica. Land and labor is cheaper and there's less transportation involved," he said.

While Kroger is shopping the world, so is the Indianapolis Fruit Co., the Indiana-based company that supplies produce to grocery stores across the country.

Along with the variety, the volume of produce consumed in this country has increased dramatically over the years, said Shane Towne, Indianapolis Fruit's head of marketing and new business development.

"There are a lot of factors involved - from concerns about obesity to the fact that the president's wife is out there planting a garden at the White House," he said.

The message that fruits and vegetables are good for you is getting out there, said John Waugh, president of East Peoria, Ill.-based Waugh Foods, a food distributor that supplies schools, hospitals and restaurants across central Illinois.

"People eat healthier now. We've noticed that the pre-cut lettuce business (used for salads) has grown tremendously," he said.

While food arrives at the store from many distant locations, there's also more coming from nearby farms, said Kathy Corso, a Peoria grower who, along with Spring Bay's Pat Jenkins, coordinates the Peoria Heights Farmers Market.

"You're seeing more local produce become available because more people are interested in where their food comes from," Corso said.

She looks for that interest to spur more local growers.

"I'm not against buying food that isn't grown locally, but locally grown food just tastes better and is better for you," she said.

Peoria Journal Star Steve Tarter can be reached at 686-3260 or

Fresh food facts

Stocking the produce section in today's supermarket is a global effort. Here are some facts and figures about the fruit and vegetables we put on our table.

- More kiwi fruit comes into the United States from Chile than New Zealand, where growers renamed the fruit after the country's national bird.

- While U.S. farmers produce 6 billion pounds of onions annually, no fewer than 175 countries around the world grow onions.

- China is a new and growing source of fresh produce for the United States. In 2007, the most recent year figures are available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture tracked 17 shipments of different fruits and vegetables into this country from China.

- Canada has pushed forward as an exporter of produce through its development of a vast greenhouse network that allowing the northern country to raise tomatoes, carrots and other vegetables.

- New Jersey is a leading producer of blueberries in the United States.

- Michigan harvests 11,000 acres of asparagus annually.

Sources: Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Statistics Canada, Michigan Asparagus Advisory Board