Wednesday, July 20, 2011

New idea: Local-In-A-Box

In the move toward making local food a regular part of life for shoppers, Lowes Food added a new fold earlier this summer: The Locally Grown Club, a sort of supermarket-based CSA.

Farm-based CSAs are well-established, of course, as subscription services that let a shopper pay in advance and receive a regular share in a farm's harvest.

Lowes' new version is a little different: The Winston-Salem-based chain with locations in Charlotte is letting shoppers sign up to receive a weekly package of produce from N.C. farms. The club runs until Sept. 17 and varies in price, from $30 for a one-week trial subscription to $75 for three weeks or $175 for a 7-week subscription. Shoppers pick up their produce every Saturday at the stores. Each box has six to 10 items, weighs at least 12 pounds, and is designed to be enough produce for a family of four for a week. Sign up and get details here: lowesclub.

So how does the company define local? Most of the farms used are in North Carolina, although the chain also works with farms in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Viriginia, based on availability and seasonality. For instance, this week's boxes would include Roma tomatoes and Athena melons from Patterson Farms in China Grove, Sprite melons from Southeastern Growers Association of Kinston, lettuce from Shelton Farms in Whittier, mini sweet pepppers from Bailey Farms in Oxford, and white peaches from Lindsay Deal in Taylorsville, along with N.C. eggplant, S.C. corn and Virginia potatoes.

Looking around the country yesterday, the only program like it that I found is at the Dorothy Lane markets in and around Dayton, Ohio, which started a similar subscription service about a year ago. But it's something we may see more often as stores look for ways to harness the desire for local with what their region can provide.

Lorna Christy, a marketing expert with the Produce Marketing Association, says she sees CSAs going off in all kinds of directions we couldn't have predicted five or 10 years ago. "It's a really interesting example of how the lines are blurring between the locally grown CSA and retail outlets," she says. She's seen examples in many cities of CSAs opening retail operations in stores that are vacant and cheaply rented thanks to the economic downturn.

She also points to things like stores that allow farmers markets to operate in their parking lots. Even though it looks like the stores wouldn't want competition right outside their doors, it actually works: The stores get good will from the community and shoppers who start outside usually also go inside to buy things to go with the fresh produce they picked up.

Regional chains like Lowes can be more innovative than large national chains, she says, so they're good incubators for new ideas. Finding ways to harness local food is part of that. "It's a great example of really good marketing people looking outward and finding new ways to connect."

So have any of you signed up for the Lowes food club? I'd love to hear how the experience works and whether you got your money's worth in the boxes.


Anonymous said...

I received my first box last week and it was awesome! A nice variety, very fresh and packaged in a solid box. I ended up paying less than $1 per pound for the box. I was very pleased!

Mandi @ Southern Gnome said...

This is very interesting and I like the idea that a grocery store would let farmers set up and sell produce in their parking lot.

Alison said...

Interesting, but not for a 2-person family. Since "local" is defined so broadly, wouldn't it be nearly as easy to pick up exactly the produce you'd need at the store the usual way? Even Harris Teeter points out NC produce these days. I don't see that this offers much of value, other than the convenience of someone else picking out your groceries, and being forced to try new things.

I do like the idea of farmers' markets in store parking lots, though. Seems like a natural partnership, when you think about it.