Sysco Looks to Promote Local Food Growers

Giant food distributor Sysco has a new program to keep food close to where it's grown, beginning in the Southwest. The company has begun working with 50 food producers in New Mexico and two other states. Lower transportation costs are a plus, and the move can lead to fresher food and a safer food supply.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. You know the new eco-green mantra: think global, buy local. As in food from local farms. New concerns over food safety and quality may push the local food fad even faster. One giant food distributor thinks so. NPR's Ted Robbins explains.

TED ROBBINS: Thanks to a wet summer, the grass on Mark Marley's(ph) ranch is a vivid green and tall. You have to look hard to even see the livestock feeding off it.

Mr. MARK MARLEY (Rancher, New Mexico): We drove by some sheep just a minute ago and we're going to see some out there to our right.

ROBBINS: The Marley ranch is just west of Roswell, New Mexico. Less than 200 miles away...

(Soundbite of food being prepared)

ROBBINS: ...at Le Café Miche in Albuquerque, Chef Wayne Leach is preparing a rack of Marley's lamb.

Chef WAYNE LEACH (Le Café Miche): Throw it on the grill for a little bit, cut it into actual chops, stand those up on the plate, a little bit of mashed potatoes, give a little bit of ratatouille with it.

ROBBINS: And Leach says you have a more flavorful dish than lamb from say, Australia.

Chef LEACH: Any product that you can get closer to the table, instead of farther from the table, it's going to be a fresher, better product and you're going to have a lot more success with it.

ROBBINS: But restaurants don't typically get food from ranchers and farmers who have the time. They get their food from distributors. A couple of times a week, a truck from Sysco - North America's largest food distributor - pulls up to Le Café Miche and delivers hundreds of ingredients, including Mark Marley's lamb.

It's part of a pilot program called Born in New Mexico. Maurice Zeck is in charge of the program for Sysco and a chef himself. He says first of all, it's a great marketing strategy.

Mr. MAURICE ZECK (Director, Born in New Mexico program for Sysco): Marketing where you live. To the people that live where you do. In other words, New Mexico products for New Mexicans.

ROBBINS: It certainly doesn't hurt Sysco to look neighborly and green. The company has similar programs in two other states. Getting food from known local providers may help prevent - or at least contain - food contamination. And eventually, Zeck says, it will also make economic sense.

Mr. ZECK: We have huge transportation issues in this country right now with the price of diesel fuel being what it is. It just makes more sense to buy locally whenever you can.

ROBBINS: Born in New Mexico started last year with TV and newspaper ads and billboards to raise public demand. A year-and-a-half later, it's not yet making money. About 50 New Mexico food producers are part of it. Not as many as the company hoped for. Maurice Zeck says that's because Sysco made a couple of miscalculations.

Mr. ZECK: We thought that the restaurant community would pay a little more for local product than they would national product.

ROBBINS: It wouldn't. One reason Mark Marley's lamb is successful is that it doesn't cost more. The other miscalculation? Sysco touted buying food from small farmers. It even shot commercials at Walt Lea's four-acre orchard in northern New Mexico. But in the end, Lea couldn't afford to meet Sysco's quality requirements: a $2 million liability bond, refrigeration, and a loading dock.

Mr. WALT LEA (Has small orchard): You know, they like to keep those trucks rolling and they can't put up with us small farmers having a few boxes to sell. They want a full pallet of anything that you've got.

ROBBINS: Plus, Lea says he can get more money selling his apples, peaches, cherries, and berries to stores in Sante Fe. Of course, that's local, so he doesn't really need Sysco. Maurice Zeck says the program is about planning for the future of the food industry. He likens the local movement to the early days of the organic food movement.

Mr. ZECK: Some people with vision anticipate that our customers are going to become greener and greener as time goes on, and we want to be there for them with the products, and ready to hit the market with them.

ROBBINS: Sysco's goal is to double the number of providers every year during the five year pilot program, while building public demand for local food. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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