As a journalist, I prefer to report the news, but occasionally that ends up making news. This was the case during a recent trip to a grocery store. With both of the Marsh stores in my hometown closing, I set out to find a new place to shop in a nearby town. A large, modern Kroger store in Westfield, IN was my choice. While strolling through its brightly lit, well-organized, colorful produce section, I noticed a prominent display of watermelons. Under the artfully arranged pile of melons was a large sign that read “Indiana Grown.” In fact, it was the official logo of the Indiana Grown program administered by the Indiana State Department of Agriculture. This program brands and promotes food products grown or produced in Indiana. Something at the back of my mind said, “This is not right.” Do you know what it was?
Not being the sharpest tool in the shed, it took me a while to realize what was wrong. In fact, it was several minutes later while perusing the selection of Indiana wine in the liquor department that it dawned on me. This is May –how can there be Indiana grown melons in May? A return to the produce section confirmed that, indeed, the melons in the Indiana Grown bin were clearly labeled “Product of Mexico.” I snapped a photo of the display. When I got home I posted it on social media, along with a snarky comment. This is when things got interesting.
Several farmers who produce products for the Indiana Grown program saw my post and became rather incensed about how the program was being abused by retailers. They started contacting the ISDA asking that something be done. By the next day, the controversy had grown to the point where the Director of ISDA was calling me on my cell phone to ask for details on the incident. He explained that the Indiana Grown program does not have the manpower or resources to police every retailer involved in the program. Thus, they rely on the public to notify them of violations. While understandable, most farmers and consumers may not be aware of this.
To be fair, it may have been a simple mistake by an employee who was not well-trained. Yet, there is a powerful incentive for retailers to play fast and loose with the term local. Today, consumers will seek out and even pay a higher price for food products produced locally, even though many have no idea what products are produced in their local area or state. Thus, they rely on labels. If big box store retailers are allowed to mislabel products as local, it will erode consumer confidence in branding programs like Indiana Grown. Farmers, large and small, rely on these kind of programs to give them access to the marketplace and to help them compete in the highly competitive area of retail food sales.
So, next time you see a locally grown sign or logo in your grocery story, check the products to make sure they are really local. If it is not locally produced, I encourage you to bring it to the attention of the store or to contact ISDA and let them know of the abuse. Likewise, if your local store does not participate in the Indiana Grown program or purchase and market products from your state or region, then complain to that store. With national grocery chains replacing locally-based stores, it is vital that we keep the local connection and maintain the integrity of local-branded programs.
A week later, I returned to the Kroger store where all this began. The melons from Mexico, along with the Indiana Grown sign, had been removed. There was a large display of out of state strawberries. I’m hoping in the next few weeks that some locally grown Hoosier strawberries will find a place in this produce section.
By Gary Truitt