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Pundit’s Mailbag — 
Jersey Fresh: Local Before Local Was Local!
Can Vic Savanello And Beth Feehan Find Common Ground?
Do Consumers Actually Need An Official Definition For Everything?

Jim Prevor’s Perishable Pundit, May 25, 2015

We received a number of responses regarding our piece, New Jersey Prepares To Define Local, But Do We Need To Penalize Retailers? How The Initiative Will Hurt Jersey Farmers And Consumers Vic Savanello Speaks Out.

One thoughtful writer is passionate about local. In fact, we’ve previously published Beth Feehan, Director, New Jersey Farm to School Network, on this very subject in a piece titled, Pundit's Mailbag — Buying Locally Grown And The Freedom To Choose Otherwise.

This time, after reading what Vic Savanello, Director of Produce & Floral at Allegiance Retail Services and President at The Eastern Produce Council, had to say, she wanted to share some “food for thought” with the industry:

The work my organization does in New Jersey centers on getting more locally grown fresh food into schools, not only to teach children where real food comes from, but also to create life-long fruit and veg eaters.

The Farm to School movement is in direct alignment with reversing an obesity epidemic that stands to bankrupt our country should we not arrest it within the next generation. The numbers are staggering, and it is proven that diets full of fresh fruits and vegetables provide a path to a healthier life.

These lessons about produce are enhanced when there is a story behind the product, when an actual human being grows the food and when a child gets to connect to agriculture in a hands-on way. Farm visits and farmer visits to schools are profoundly impactful when trying to teach children about whole food, and we are lucky enough in New Jersey to still have farmers in our midst to learn from and enjoy the bounties of their labor.

Several years ago, during the first ever “Jersey Fresh Farm to School Week”, which celebrated what is being grown in New Jersey, a reputable produce distributor involved in a school event was asked to purchase local apples for a taste-testing event. The distributor sent apples from Maryland and New York when there were absolutely apples available from New Jersey orchards. Luckily, because the students were too young to understand this, we were able to enjoy their reactions to the different types and tastes of apples. It was a teaching moment. But an opportunity to talk about the local farms that the apples COULD have come from was lost and our efforts to encourage eating locally were muted.

I use this as an example of how local has been utilized for different viewpoints. What is local to some isn’t necessarily local to others. In the larger food supply, most times price is king, but in smaller markets where the aggregation involves family farms and smaller producers, there’s a different set of transactions that isn’t always based on getting the lowest price possible.

The Jersey Fresh marketing program needs a new slogan—“Jersey Fresh: Local Before Local Was Local.” Jersey Fresh is THE original local state program, and we’ve been at the forefront for years in supporting our growers. But with the emergence of “local” moving beyond an adjective to a potentially misappropriated marketing tool, all parties involved are scrambling to figure out how to maximize the impact of this ill-defined word.

I believe (without actually having a discussion with the New Jersey State Board of Agriculture prior to writing this) that New Jersey farmers are trying to make sure that when a store says something is local, there is an explanation of what that definition of local is. Defining state of origin allows the consumer to decide because the purchase is transparent.

There are always going to be different connotations of “local” in this industry. New Jersey may not succeed in defining it at this juncture but our farmers deserve a voice. I volunteer myself to continue this conversation in person and online, as has Mr. Savanello, should a convening be considered. This is a debate that is worth having, and I encourage all parties concerned to get together to discuss this important issue in the Garden State.

—Beth Feehan
Director
New Jersey Farm to School
Trenton, New Jersey

Beth’s passion is obvious, and we are lucky to have people like her in our midst. Her drive to build a better world is inspiring.

This all being said, it is worth noting that there is a large gap between what we wish were so and what we know is so. To mention a few points:

1) We have little evidence that getting more produce into schools actually makes children more likely to consume large amounts of fruits and vegetables when they are older.

2) We have little evidence that eating more fresh produce as children reduces obesity when these children become adults.

3) Whether produce is grown in state, in nearby states, in distant states or in foreign countries, the produce is grown by “actual human beings” and often on “family farms.”

4) Because local does not naturally mean “within state boundaries,” if one wants to order produce from a particular state, one must specify that.

5) Price is not the only factor in purchasing, but it is not established that eating only local increases consumption. In fact, because New Jersey does not grow many wonderful produce items — mangos, avocados, bananas and pineapples to start — and grows others only seasonally, it is at least reasonable to think that children brought up to always eat delicious produce wherever it may come from will have higher levels of consumption later in life than children taught to always seek out local produce.

6) Programs such as Jersey Fresh are wonderful rallying points for a state’s industry. These programs may even increase consumption of in-state produce within that state. But the evidence is pretty scant that the sum total of these programs across the country increases total consumption of fruits and vegetables.

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Beth’s supposition is that “New Jersey farmers are trying to make sure that when a store says something is local, there is an explanation of what that the definition of local is.” This may be true. But the proponents of these rules are also biasing the process by saying that if you stick to produce grown only in the state of New Jersey, there is no need to define local. The farmers could just as easily ask retailers to post their definition of local: In state, within 100 miles of the store, within 200 miles of a distribution center, grown in the USA, etc.

And finally there is a question of what the penalty should be if things get messed up. Few would argue against fines and even imprisonment for those who intentionally go out to deceive consumers. And, in fact, we already have a panoply of laws and regulations that can lead to large fines or put people in jail if they, for example, label product falsely.

If, however, a supermarket chain labels product as local, buys it from 100 yards over the border in Pennsylvania or New York and fails to put up signage explaining this — is this a serious problem where we should start hitting retailers with fines?

And do New Jersey farmers really benefit if their produce gets declared “not local” by other states in retaliation of this rule?

That New Jersey farmers deserve a voice is beyond doubt. But in exercising this voice, they should be aware of how other states may react to this move, to how larger markets benefit them and to the dangers of making everything a law.

Nutrition labeling on fresh produce is still a voluntary program. Because compliance has always been so high, the FDA never felt the need to make it mandatory. If there must be a state definition, wouldn’t it make sense to make it a voluntary guideline and avoid the whole issue of imposing fines and consequences?

Many thanks to Beth Feehan of the New Jersey Farm to School Network for weighing in on this topical issue.

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