The Conundrum of Shopping Locally if You're a Local Shop

Posted on November 02, 2012 by Gwen Rosenberg


Ohio is a major grower of popcorn and so are Indiana, Iowa and Illinois. It was not particularly difficult to find popcorn for my shop from a locally owned processor within a short drive from Kent. Still, the allure of finding a local farmer and dealing directly with him or her was so great that at a farmer’s market this summer I bought a bag of popcorn convinced that I would buy directly from this farm for my shop, Popped! It wasn’t until I got home that I noticed, there on top of the popcorn, in the ziplock bag, was the unmistakable evidence of a mouse infestation down on the farm. Yuck.

I’m happy to say that I have found a local supplier of Ohio-grown popcorn with a reputation for quality control. The emphasis on shopping locally has steadily been gaining momentum and sourcing local ingredients is something I value, as do a lot of other businesses in town. Honestly, though, it can be frustrating, expensive and time consuming. This momentum is strong in conscientious shoppers, but it hasn’t yet trickled up to distributors and processors, leaving many small businesses in a bit of a lurch. 

Case in point, butter. I have spent the last couple months tracking down Ohio butter. Ohio has a lot of cows. I thought this would really be a no-brainer like the popcorn, but what I have discovered is that much of the milk that is produced in this state is sold to very large companies that may or may not process it into butter in Ohio, or if they do, the label may not indicate that fact.

There’s a Land O’Lakes plant in Kent, but I can’t drive there and buy a couple cases of butter. The labels on the Land O’Lakes and other brands don’t identify where the cows live, only the company headquarters or the location of the corporation that contracted to have the milk processed into butter. So, although the label on the butter I’m buying might say Wisconsin, the milk could have come from Portage County or Pennsylvania. There’s just no way for me to find out.

None of these giant dairy companies have done anything to really make it easier for me or the consumer to identify the source of the milk. It would be nice if the labels named the regional source of the milk. That would give consumers concerned about the geographic location of products valuable information to make their purchasing decisions.

Sadly, my purchasing power of two or three cases is not strong enough to bend corporate America to my will. I did ultimately manage to find Ohio butter, but my volume still wasn’t nearly high enough to purchase it a price that wouldn’t wreak havoc on my product prices. So, for now, I’m shopping locally by purchasing butter that says Wisconsin on the label, from a locally owned distributor. 

The government defines “local” as within 400 miles. That’s pretty generous, as far as I’m concerned. It might even make my Wisconsin butter “local,” but I couldn’t advertise it as local with a straight face. I’m not just picking on butter, every ingredient in my recipes, and a fair amount of my equipment, has a back story involving the lengths I’ve gone through to shop local. 

Underneath Lake Erie are tremendous stores of salt from ancient sea beds currently being mined byMorton and Cargill. I sent them each an email in hopes of purchasing Ohio sea salt (cool, right?). But when the drop-down menu requested to know what continent I was sending the email from, I knew then that local salt was just not going to happen. It would have been fun to claim local Ohio sea salt on my menu, but I don’t know how I feel about attaching the term “locally sourced” to a gigantic company with locations all over the globe.

If I toss around the “local” word too loosely, then wouldn’t it go to reason that if I had a business in Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Walmart, absolutely everything would be local-ish?

Oh Butter, Popped! Shops Locally: Part Two

The Highs and Lows of Popcorn

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