Big-box supermarkets, small local farmers around Chicago have struggled to work together
Here are some of the reasons why ambitious plans to connect big grocers to small farmers have withered — and what the farmers are doing now.
Nine years ago, the woman- and Black-owned Urban Growers Collective secured a great deal selling produce from a Bridgeport farm to Walgreens.
At the time, the Deerfield-based drugstore giant was at the vanguard of stores touting expanded fresh food, fruits and vegetable offerings, particularly in neighborhoods considered food deserts — without much access to supermarkets.
The Austin, Texas-based retailer Whole Foods used that playbook, too. It touted buying from small, Midwest farms when it opened a store six years ago in Englewood.
Even Walmart crowed about locally grown cantaloupes and corn when it opened a supercenter in Austin.
The idea behind all of these efforts was to boost availability of healthy, local produce in neighborhoods where it was scarce while supporting the region’s agricultural ecosystem.
Now, the Whole Foods in Englewood has closed, and there’s little sign of local produce at Walgreens and Walmart stores.
So why have such ambitious plans to connect big grocers to small farmers withered, and what happened to the farms?
Walgreens’ partnership with the Urban Growers Collective and other local farms ended after 15 months because it turned out to be too expensive to weave small agricultural operations into a massive supply chain.
The drive to grow produce at a volume required to sell to big stores, in many cases, left local farmers in the lurch because they were unable to scale up quickly enough to meet demand.
And, although people love farmers’ markets, value and efficiency seem to dominate their thinking when they go to a grocery store.
“The more the grocery industry shifts to buy online and delivery, the less likely the consumer will be interested in the origin of those products,” said Steve Tracey, executive director of Penn State University’s Center for Supply Chain Research.
Long before today’s inflation put pressure on food sellers, the mass-market grocery industry was engaged in a price war. Delivering the best prices saw supermarkets and chains prioritize buying in bulk and pursuing mergers and consolidations — the latest the proposed $24.6 billion deal to marry Kroger-owned Mariano’s and Albertsons-owned Jewel.
These trends have made it harder to find local produce in big-box stores. And farmers, as a result, have had to change.
Eleven years ago, when Walmart’s supercenter opened in Austin, shoppers flocked in and found seedless watermelon at $3.48 a pound and locally grown cantaloupes for $1.68 apiece. Baskets of unshucked corn included signs identifying the farm where the produce was grown.
On a recent visit to that store, though, there was no produce that could be traced to a Chicago-area grower.
Representatives from Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.
The huge volumes of food required to stock such stores and food-safety regulations can make supply chain logistics overwhelming for small businesses to navigate, Tracey said. Less than 2% of U.S. produce comes from small, artisanal or family farms, and they couldn’t fulfill major chains’ supply chain needs, he said.
The Urban Growers Collective, for example, had been providing Walgreens with 60 to 70 products a week but ran into trouble when it moved its certified farm to a new location. That meant each farm in the collective had to qualify for the “Good Agricultural Practices” certification, spend time on paperwork and meet standards such as soil and water testing, maintaining separate produce-washing stations, even requiring visitors not to chew gum or wear jewelry in the name of food safety, said Laurell Sims, co-founder and chief executive officer of finance for Urban Growers Collective.
“We follow these food safety standards at each site, but it’s a heavy lift and expensive for a small urban farmer to certify every new site,” Sims said.
In addition, meeting a major retailer’s high-volume needs for produce would have meant planning the planting a year in advance, she said.
The collective’s farms cover 11 acres in wide-ranging sites that include Grant Park, South Chicago, Jackson Park, Altgeld Gardens and Roosevelt Square on the Near West Side.
After the Walgreens deal dissolved, Urban Growers Collective started offering a mobile farmers market within a retrofitted bus that makes 15 stops a week on weekdays at schools, community centers and health centers. The collective also sells produce to neighborhood markets, church farm stands and restaurants.
“We can keep produce grown at our farms in the communities from which it is grown,” Sims said.
Not all big-box retailers have given up on local produce. Whole Foods, owned by Amazon, still sources products from local farmers and small-scale food startups. It offers 30% more locally sourced products than it did five years ago and provides loans to suppliers through its “Local Producer Loan Program,” according to Rachel Malish, a Whole Foods spokesperson.
“We have a good amount of seasonal local produce in our Midwest stores right now, like kale, hard squash, apples, carving pumpkins, mums, etc.,” Malish said.
The Whole Foods closing in Englewood isn’t the only recent supermarket closing in a low-income Chicago neighborhood. In June, the German supermarket chain Aldi closed a store in Auburn Gresham with little warning, citing repeated burglaries and a sales downturn.
Such closings have prompted anger among some advocates, who have noted that supermarkets often make big promises when they open in new neighborhoods, everything from fixing the food desert problem to pledging support for local farmers.
No one seems to get the full story of why they close, said Elizabeth “Liz” Abunaw, founder and owner of Forty Acres Fresh Market, a startup that plans to open a storefront in Austin next year.
“It’s an easy narrative to say the community didn’t support the store,” Abunaw said. “I don’t know that it’s a complete narrative.”
Ultimately, local farmers say the problem won’t be solved by working with supermarket chains. They’re looking for other ways to get produce to communities that need it.
In Mokena, Derek Drake is going directly to customers with a farm he started in an old shipping container. Using large-scale hydroponics, he farms year-round and sells his herbs, lettuces and cabbages online via Market Wagon, an e-commerce platform.
Shoppers who pay Market Wagon’s $6.95 delivery fee get cold-packed totes with produce grown on Drake’s farm, which he calls Ditto Foods. Most of the vegetables are grown in the 40-foot shipping container on Drake’s Mokena property that can yield as much as 3 acres of produce. The produce is nourished with nutrient-rich water, growing without soil. The system recycles water and air moisture, so it uses less than 5 gallons of water a day.
“I wanted to do ‘tiny home meets food truck,’ ” Drake said. “You can put [the container] in neighborhoods and create a new, innovative food-delivery system.”
Ditto Foods also sells produce to small grocery stores and restaurants.
Drake and his co-owner and husband Brad Schiever chose the temperature-controlled, pesticide-free farming method as what he calls “a love letter” to his hometown, Ford Heights, a community plagued by long-term disinvestment.
“The narrative will be about a company that’s investing and forging ahead with a new and innovative way of growing produce,” Drake said, noting that he intends to expand to three hydroponic farms in the next five years.
Another hydroponic farmer, Terrence Glenn, owner of Chicago-based Urban Eden Farms, started his farm in a 400-square-foot space in The Plant, a Back of the Yards incubator housing small food businesses. He’s up to 2,600 square feet of mushrooms, microgreens, lettuce greens, culinary herbs and edible flowers that he sells directly to food co-ops, small grocers and restaurants, the latter through two food distributors that take a 25% cut.
Glenn said he’s considering partnering with a British company that’s aiming to open in Chicago and elsewhere in the United States to buy fresh food, store and sell it and deliver it on e-bikes.
The “marketing and sales are difficult” as a sustainable farmer, he said: “I have to be careful because the majority of my time is spent in operations.”
In Austin, Abunaw said she has been challenged and exhilarated by solving how to bring freshly farmed local foods to an underresourced neighborhood. She’s been providing coupons to older people, courtesy of a state nutrition program, so they can buy fresh, healthy food.
“The community of Austin has welcomed Forty Acres,” Abunaw said. “That keeps you going. Ultimately, I said this is a customer worth servicing. There’s a perception there’s no money to be made out there. It’s not worth the effort. I reject that wholeheartedly.”
Natasha Nicholes, who with her husband, Shomari, runs two farms in West Pullman, is still figuring out her business model. Three years ago, the Nicholeses created a nonprofit, educational farm called We Sow We Grow.
They’ve expanded with the help of volunteers, grants and donations. In June, they leased four additional lots — a quarter-acre at the same intersection as their initial site — so they could grow seasonal vegetables. Their long-range vision is to sell the produce to people who pick up produce weekly.
“We’re trying to make vegetables and fruits fun,” Nicholes said.
She said her plan is rooted in independence and that she has “no desire to do mass production. It takes the fun out of it for me.”