The legal of local

Consumers have embraced food grown near where they live as the best thing since sliced artisanal bread.

Farmer Rich Bonnano. Farmer Rich Bonnano.
By Sarah Pinneo
May 8, 2011

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Since late 2007, when the New Oxford American Dictionary named “locavore” its word of the year, the once novel noun has found its way into everyday vocabularies. Between 2005 (the year “locavore” was coined) and 2010, the number of Massachusetts farmers’ markets more than doubled. In spite of the poor economy, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs also bloomed during the same period. And more than 30,000 people attended the first Boston Local Food Festival, which was held last October. Numbers like those are the sort to make farmers grin – and turn supermarket executives as green as organic arugula.

“The bigger outfits don’t want to lose out,” says David Dumaresq, owner of Farmer Dave’s, a small outfit that grows produce in Dracut and Tewksbury, runs an 800-member CSA, and sells at 12 farmers’ markets during peak season. “So if they can say their produce is in any way local, they often will.” But now that “local” has cachet, reports of “local washing” abound. Rich Bonanno, co-owner of Pleasant Valley Gardens in Methuen, recalls one incident that raised some farmers’ hackles. “A chain supermarket offered to buy as many Massachusetts blueberries as we [growers] could deliver,” says Bonanno. But when a friend stopped by one of the stores later, “he saw blueberries unloaded from a New Jersey carton right underneath the ‘Local Blueberries’ banner.”

Some area farmers might have been upset by the duplicity, but not Bonanno. “Because first they bought all we had,” he says.

Dumaresq tells of a similar experience he had with bell peppers. “I used to sell to a chain supermarket which had a big display right inside the door” with a banner that read “Fresh, Locally Grown Produce” and his vegetables on a shelf underneath. “Each store would usually buy one or two boxes of most of the items that I had available that week,” he says. Behind those displays there would be more peppers, a lot of them from farther away, but it wasn’t clear that the banner was referring to only certain produce. “They weren’t exactly lying,” he says. But now, because he doesn’t have to, he doesn’t sell to that chain.

Massachusetts doesn’t have a law on the books regulating the use of the word “local,” but Vermont and New Hampshire do – with occasionally illogical results. Bonanno and Dumaresq farm Massachusetts soils that lie just a few miles from the New Hampshire border, but by law, their produce cannot be labeled “local” at New Hampshire markets. Yet food grown more than 100 miles to the north would qualify as long as the farm is in the Granite State. In Massachusetts, grocers are free to interpret “local” as they see fit – and for big chains, it’s generally more economical to buy goods year-round from just one or two large purveyors rather than dealing with the complexities of ordering seasonally from local producers.

“It’s a powerful word, there’s no doubt,” says Bill McGowan, produce coordinator for Whole Foods Market’s North Atlantic region. Although it’s an international operation, Whole Foods has a supply chain in place meant to satisfy its customers’ demand for local foods. Lee Kane, Whole Foods’ “EcoCzar” and “regional forager” (yes, that’s what it says on his business card) is responsible for ferreting out local goodies for every Whole Foods in New England and for overseeing store-based foragers.

In order to be considered local in a New England Whole Foods store, a product must meet two of three tests, says Kane. “It must be raised or grown locally, packaged locally, and/or produced locally,” and by local he means coming from one of the six New England states or eastern upstate New York. Produce buyers at each store are also encouraged to source products from farms that are closer – a policy McGowan says “is fairly unique in our industry.”

Some would argue that lumping all of New England into your definition of “local” is too broad. Grocer David Warner in Jamaica Plain prefers a much stricter definition. To Warner and his wife, Kristine Cortese, co-owners of City Feed and Supply’s two locations, “local” means within 100 miles, and products that come from within 300 miles are labeled “regional.”

“I like our definition,” Warner says. “Once in a while we also use ‘hyperlocal,’ by which we mean walking distance from the store.” His stores carry 600-plus local and regional products, even more during the growing season. “It frustrates me that [local] isn’t formalized,” he acknowledges.

But not everyone agrees. “Local is in the eye of the beholder,” says farmer Bonanno. “Personally, I’d hate to define it for anyone else.” What he would like to see is better labeling. “It all comes down to disclosure.” For one of his biggest-selling products – bagged romaine hearts – he makes that happen. “Every package has my name and address on it,” he says.

If stores labeled just the state and country of origin for produce, there would be no need to define “local,” and shoppers could decide how far they like their blueberries or peppers to have traveled. City Feed and Supply’s labels are very clear. Cabot cheeses, for example are tagged “Regional Product, Made in VT, 198 Miles Away.” Tofu from 21st Century Foods sports the most “local” designation in the store for now: “0.8 miles away.” Whole Foods labels some products with the name of the farm or grower and the town of origin. “Backyard Farms, Madison, ME,” reads the sign over the greenhouse tomatoes. “I’m a LOCAL,” it adds – although the same sign appears in stores from Maine to West Hartford, Connecticut.

Origins labeling is not a new idea, after all. A decades-old Massachusetts law regulates the use of the term “native” (1960s-speak for local). The law specifies that any use of the word native on fruit and vegetable signs be followed immediately by the state of origin. Grocers beware: The law is still on the books, and violators can be fined up to $100.

Sarah Pinneo is the author of the novel Julia’s Child, to be published in 2012. Send comments to

Correction: Because of an editing error, a photo caption accompanying an earlier version of this article misidentified farmer Rich Bonnano.

  • May 8, 2011 cover
  • May 8, 2011 cover
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