As fast as veggies are popping up in the garden, local foods are showing up on grocery store shelves throughout northern New York.
A new food co-op recently opened in Clayton, in Jefferson County, that showcases locally-sourced vegetables and other products, but big grocery chains like Hannaford and Wegman's are getting in on the trend, too, adding more of the region's products to store shelves.
There's a flurry of activity around a small storefront on James Street in Clayton. A table set outside offers tempting-looking tastes of all sorts of food, from meatballs to blueberry crisp to lentil hummus. As passersby stop for a treat, Rachel Roberts gets busy.
"I'm setting out some beets that are ready to throw in the pot to cook," Roberts said. "We've found that even people that like organic food and local food, like convenience food."
The shop is the new Clayton Food Co-op, and it spotlights locally-grown produce and all sorts of gourmet products from around New York, along with some items from outside the region. But the emphasis is definitely local.
Shopper Kate Breheny is happy.
"Well, it's a good way to support the local economy, and to also, if you know a lot of the farmers yourself – I guess just being able to share in their, I guess, enjoyment of growing and everything," she said.
Lori Arnot is the co-op's executive director. She said Clayton needed a fresh, local food retailer, so she worked with others to found the co-op, which opened its doors in May. She said the idea for the co-op came partly out of her family's interest in local foods.
"When I eat good, clean food, my body feels better. And watching my family, the same thing. They are healthier when I feed them food that I know what's in it," Arnot said.
Arnot isn't alone in paying increasing attention to the quality of her family's diet. David Anderson is the store manager for Hannaford's in Watertown. He said he's seen increasing consumer demand for local and organic options – and the company has been responding. A recent stroll through the aisles turned up many items, mostly in the dairy and produce sections, with signs noting regional origins.
"We do have a lot of people who are eating healthier and organic, which kinda tells you that they're looking at what they're putting in the foods and things like that," Anderson said.
Wegman's, too, is getting in on the trend because of customer demand. The store in Liverpool, outside Syracuse, last year began an annual “Meet the Growers” event, to highlight its local producers. Jim Locicero, at the company’s headquarters in Rochester, is a buyer for regional stores. It's his job to choose some of the local products that make it onto Wegman’s shelves.
"Some of the customers most often say they like supporting the local economy and supporting local jobs and farmers," Locicero said. "There's also a perceived safety comfort with local foods, locally produced foods."
All this is good news of course for the region's farmers. Stephen Winkler owns Lucki 7 Livestock Company in Rodman, in southern Jefferson County. Winkler said he started supplying the Wegman's in DeWitt, outside Syracuse, a little over a year ago.
"We're what we call a sustainable farm," he said. "We use deep bedding, the animals are not solely on concrete. It's grass-based production – all the animals have access to outside and to grass."
And then there's the local economy angle. Winkler said his operation, in turn, supports a family-owned trucking company and a local meat processor, so dollars spent at a local farm like his often remain in the community.
And Winkler said a feeling of connection with his community is an important part of the local foods experience for producers, too.
"Nothing gives me a better feeling than going to a local store and seeing our farm name, or having someone at a ball game come up you and tell you how good our eggs were, or chicken – it's something that we lost as agriculture changed in the last 50 years, the farmer lost that connection to the consumer, and certainly the consumer lost the connection to the farm," Winkler said.
That's a connection that Winkler, the Clayton Food Co-op and many others in the grocery retail world are working to repair, as the local food economy grows.