State of local food not bad in this Plains city

Kei, a commenter on my blog, recently asked about what kind of produce is available these days in Kansas. A San Franciscan, she was surprised by the dearth of produce she found recently in New York compared with her home.

Although I gave her a brief answer, I thought I’d check it out in a trip today to the Community Mercantile, Lawrence’s “natural foods” grocery.

Front of the Community Mercantile, Lawrence, Kansas; photo by Janet MajureBy way of background: The Merc, as it’s known, started back in 1974, essentially as a buyers club of health food consumers. Since those humble beginnings, it moved into a small storefront or two, then made a big jump in size in 1993 and another in 2001, when it moved to its current location, where it is just wrapping up a $1.5 million renovation. Somewhere back in the 1990s, it survived the arrival and subsequent departure of a Wild Oats. Through it all, it’s remained a cooperatively owned store.

Chestnuts from Lawrence, Kansas; photo by Janet Majure

Anyway, I strolled in this afternoon and found locally grown mesclun, sweet potatoes and chestnuts in the produce department. Normally, you’d see apples aplenty this time of year, but we had a terrible freeze in the spring that destroyed the local crop. Thanks to the Merc’s 2007 “miles to the Merc” program, it’s easy to see which products are local throughout the store.

Signage identifies produce and its source; these potatoes traveled 20 miles to the MercThe staff also labels the geographic source of not-local things in the produce department. Therefore, I can tell you that the winter squash was not local, as I thought it might be. Instead, it was from Colorado. Yes, it is a neighboring state, but it’s almost 400 miles from Lawrence to the Colorado state line (and I can’t say I saw many squash vines last time I crossed that line). Still, Colorado is a lot closer than California, the source of many other produce items.

Over in the meat department, there’s a plentiful supply of beef and chicken from the area, and over in dairy we have an embarrassment of riches, having a choice of local milk from just 20 miles away or organic milk from pastured cows from 160 miles distant. I’ve told you before about the local egg producers.

So, based on that quick look-see, I’d say we’re doing well here in Kansas, at least at the Merc, for fresh local food this late in the year. I should tell you, though, that Lawrence probably isn’t typical. It’s a college town, home to the University of Kansas, and it’s been bucking the mainstream for many years. There’s a Whole Foods and a Wild Oats in Overland Park, a Kansas City suburb, plus Green Acres Market in Wichita. There are probably a couple other small stores, but you shouldn’t expect to find the same thing in all the small cities in Kansas.

How's the state of fresh local food in your locale?


5 Responsesto “State of local food not bad in this Plains city”

  1. ExPat Chef says:

    We had the chance to continue our CSA for a couple weeks. I had fresh cauliflower, broccoli and greens for Thanksgiving. Still have beets, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and squash around. We got a local turkey from a nearby farm, along with pecans and pork. Eggs and milk, butter and cheese are still available. You can get local flours and grains from Heartland Mill, and many good bakeries use their flours (Wheatfields) Not bad for nearing December!

  2. Joe says:

    Great overview of a successful coop! It's interesting to see how different places around the country (and world) are or aren't able to provide local foods.

  3. Emily says:

    Southern Michigan - especially around Ann Arbor, the Lawrence of Michigan - is quite bountiful. I haven't found a really good noodle made from local flour (though there are good ones made locally of out-of-region flour), but beyond that, we have darn nearly everything: veggies, fruit, meats, milk, cheese, canned goods like beans and tomatoes, soy milk, tofu, oil, grains and flours, wine, cider...this November, I was eating 95% local meals without even trying.

  4. Janet says:

    ExPat chef, you remind me I forgot to mention baked goods. Yes, the Merc also has Wheatfields breads as well as Farm to Market breads (not organic, but no additives). And lots of local cheeses, locally made tofu, plus preserved items such as jams and jellies.

    Thanks, Joe. The Merc has had its ups and downs, but seems to be thriving these days.

    Emily, sounds like you're lucky indeed!

  5. The Mercantile in Lawrence, KS is a great resource, and I wish we had something like it in or closer to KC. In one of our latest projects, the Kansas City Food Circle has been working on is a promotion of Local Food Buying Clubs. Food Miles are becoming a real concern, and our growing network of local organic and natural food producers (*and* eaters, within 120 miles of downtown KC) should make new co-ops and buying clubs easier and more economical to set up and maintain. It still takes a lot of work - let us know if you know of any motivated folks out there with the time and skills to make it happen.

    Dave L. in Merriam, KS