CHICAGO — Feeding consumer demand for local food is a long-term commitment, according to panelists at the Midwest Produce Conference & Expo.

“It is more than a trend,” said Jim Richter, executive vice president of sales and marketing for Wilcox Fresh, Rexburg, Idaho. “It is a bigger part of produce sales week-in and week-out.”

Richter, speaking at an Aug. 14 seminar at the Midwest Expo predicts double-digit growth in local produce sales in the near future, barring weather or other external factors,

“The (growth) in regional food is where it is really at,” said Ed Osowski, director of produce and floral for Martin’s Supermarkets, South Bend, Ind. “It does make sense that you are not pulling the produce from as great a distance.”

Drew Schwartzhoff, director of marketing for C.H. Robinson, Minneapolis, Minn., said the demand for local good could revitalize growing areas that faded away 40 or 50 years ago. Freight savings for local produce figures to be a continuing reality, he said.

The panel, moderated by The Packer Editor Greg Johnson, also discussed how local produce is defined, seasonality issues associated with eating local, food safety considerations for small producers and the future of local food demand.

With no government sanctioned definition of local food, Osowski said that Martin’s Supermarkets defines local as produce that is picked and delivered to the retailer that day. Regional produce is considered coming from contiguous states, he said. Osowski said the chain also markets the produce of “family farmers” to consumers, regardless of the location of the family farm relative to the retailer, he said.

Schwartzhoff said C.H. Robinson leaves it up to their retail customers to define what is local.

One of the biggest challenges for retailers is coordinating local supply with alternative supply, Schwartzhoff said. Because retailers often don’t have the lead time to include promotions for local produce in printed flyers, Schwartzhoff said social media and online ads can work effectively to promote deals for homegrown produce.

Osowski said educating consumers about the seasonality of produce and supply interruptions are necessary.

“We drill down to the commodity level and do a lot of signage,” he said.

Scale of operations plays a part in food safety requirements, the retailer said. Osowski said Martin’s Supermarket has a list of food safety expectations for small growers that supply just one or two stores. However, he said the follow up and on-farm verification for those small growers is not as stringent as it is for the large commercial producers. However, he said in-house food safety testing of produce is conducted on produce from both large and small farms, he said. “If there is a problem we will catch it,” he said.

Schwartzhoff said C.H. Robinson doesn’t differentiate between larger and smaller growers regarding food safety standards, though more education is sometimes required for small growers.

Richter said Wilcox Fresh helps growers it works with become food safety certified.

Panelists said the appeal for local produce is not likely to dim.

Part of that demand is tied to higher flavor in local produce, Osowski said. Production that is closer to the consumer has the advantage of being harvested at a more mature stage than produce shipped in from California, he said.

“The whole local or Midwest grown concept really sells to the consumers,” Osowski said.