Buying local food: wholesale

Customer influence and local farm-to-fork efforts are making an impact on larger-volume buyers. The local food movement will grow only if “big” buyers are involved as well as individual consumers. These buyers face additional hurdles if they want to source locally.

  • Local food is often produced on a smaller scale than the wholesale scale most buyers are used to, which may lead to logistical challenges (ordering, invoices, delivery, etc.)
  • Food services may not be equipped to deal with unprocessed ingredients.
  • Because most products are available seasonally, buyers have to adapt to their orders to accommodate availability.

Following are a few tips from institutional buyers experienced in buying locally produced food.

Best management practices

Here are some examples of institutions and retail stores known for their local food procurement.

Colleges and universities

In Iowa:
Luther College, Decorah, Iowa. Luther is one of the backbone partners of the Northeast Iowa Food and Fitness Initiative, a leader in regional food systems work. In 2008, Luther made it a goal to procure 35% of their food locally. They hit 30% in 2014. More information.

Out of state:
Yale Sustainable Food Program, New Haven, Connecticut.

“Campus Dining Goes Local,” Modern Farmer, April 15, 2015. 

Retail stores

Oneota Community Coop, Decorah, Iowa.
Wheatsfield Cooperative Grocery, Ames, Iowa.

Find a list of coops in Iowa here.

Hy-Vee grocery stores are leaders among Iowa grocery stores in selling locally grown products.


More resources

Tips from practitioners

College food service
  • Measure your local food purchases from the get-go; this will allow you to evaluate your progress. Simple tracker templates are available online. Find one you feel comfortable with that allows you to keep track of your food purchases regularly.
  • Start slowly, with easy, attainable goals. Successes from the beginning will gather support from your community. For example, Luther started with “one local meal.” Central College in Pella started with having “one local food day,” where all the meals served were made from local ingredients.
  • Set long-term goals and aspirations. These goals may seem far-fetched at first, and that’s okay.  Assess what is already available in your community.
  • Gather all the stakeholders together to set that goal and make a plan: food purchasing managers, chef, manager of retail operations, general manager, lead cook, college farm , sustainability staff, wellness staff, student food councils, other student representatives, etc.
  • Work with the people involved in food purchasing to figure out the rules and regulations you will have comply with. Having an outside company in charge of your purchasing does not mean sourcing local is unfeasible.
  • Dining services should be a key leader: local food sourcing has to be a priority for dining services to be able to obtain your goals.
  • Work with local farmers and make sure communication is constantly flowing. There should be trust and open discussions to make local food procurement happen. Dining services should know before the growing season what they expect to use, so growers can form a production plan. Keep in mind that production will be variable, and be open to finding other solutions. Make sure the growers can communicate about delays or changes in production so you have time to adjust.
Maren Beard, Food Sustainability Coordinator at Luther College, Decorah IA
Retail store
  • Betsy buys as much as she can from local growers she has a relationship with, then “fills the gaps” with produce from local aggregators.
  • Define what local is (for Oneota, local means under 100 miles. Regional products are produced less than 300 miles away).
  • Use a track feature in your point of sale system to tag local, regional and/or organic product sales.
  • Maintain good, strong individual relationships with your growers. Set meetings up during the winter to go over the previous season (what sold well, what didn’t sell as well, what could be grown differently, etc.).
  • Oneota Coop does not require their growers to be GAP-certified, but does require them to hold an insurance policy.
  • To make your work easier, work with entrepreneurial, organized farmers. Betsy has found it easier to work with farmers who pay attention to what sells well in the store, know how to price their products, and standardize their invoices.
  • Make sure you are not the only outlet for your farmers! This will work better for both the grower and the buyer.
  • Produce sold at retail stores often has higher standards than produce sold at the farmers market. At the farmers market, a vendor can explain to a client why a vegetable doesn’t look “conventional.” At the retail store, the vegetable does not come with live explanation of why it doesn’t look “like it should.” Farmers need to be aware of these standards and how to meet them.
  • Promote your local food products to increase sales! (Learn more about how to promote local foods.)
Betsy Pierce, Produce Manager at Oneota Coop

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