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Championing Local Food

Chelsea Wagner works to get local food in front of consumers in the Hannaford Local program. Photo: Mainebiz/Tim Greenway

Written by Erica Houskeeper

Chelsea Wagner wants more consumers to buy local food.

A specialist for Hannaford’s Local program, Wagner works with farmers and producers across the region to give them shelf space at Hannaford supermarkets across five states.

The Portland, Maine-based supermarket chain owns 181 stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and New York. Hannaford started as a produce cart in Portland in 1883 and now offers 6,000 local products from the Northeast. The store sells 114 Vermont-made brands, including 800 products ranging from meat, produce, dairy, cheese, and coffee to condiments, ice cream, wine, beer, baked goods, and snack foods.

How Big Can Local Get? How Local Can a Marketplace Be? These questions were asked during a plenary at the 2016 Farm to Plate Network Gathering to help Vermont food system leaders more deeply understand the challenges to increase local food consumption, improve local food availability, and the connectivity to the distribution infrastructure—all goals of Vermont’s Farm to Plate food system plan. We caught up with Wagner after the Vermont Farm to Plate Gathering this year to talk about Hannaford’s commitment to local food and increasing consumer demand to boost supply.

What is Hannaford’s Local program?

The Local program, previously called Close to Home, started in 2008. We’ve been working with and supporting local food vendors here in Maine for the past 130 years, but the Local program allowed us to do specific marketing initiatives and work with farms and food producers around New England. We now work with 800 local companies and sell more than 6,000 local products.

Are the same local products available throughout Hannaford’s 181 stores?

We label items produced in the five states that our stores are located in. Our local assortment is different in each store, so local products sold in a Burlington supermarket are not the same as a St. Albans supermarket or a Portland supermarket. Before 2016, we kept local products separated by state. However, based on some consumer research, we learned that consumers want more transparency and want to support brands not only from their state but also from surrounding states.

Typically, for fresh produce and bread, consumers across the board want products made locally. Because of the flexibility of our Local program, we have many hyper-local producers that we work with to satisfy that need. For packaged products, there’s a little more leeway to sell, for example, Vermont cheese in New Hampshire stores or Maine-based GrandyOats granola in Vermont stores.

For producers, can you describe the difference between your central distribution warehouse program and direct delivery program?

Many farmers and producers think that their business has to be big enough to supply all 181 of our stores when in fact we work with small producers that deliver to just a couple of stores. The difference between our warehouse and direct store delivery program is capacity. Most of our producers are small and are in our direct store delivery program, which means they can arrange to bring their product right to the store. This program allows local producers to develop strong relationships with stores to help increase brand presence and product sales.

What are some of the most popular Vermont products customers ask for at Hannaford?

Local produce, Rosie’s Beef Jerky, Vermont Coffee Company, and Vermont Peanut Butter.

What Vermont products are you interested in seeing more of at Hannaford?

Jams, jellies, honey, eggs, and salty snacks. We do have Vermont eggs in some stores, and meat is an area that we’re always looking into.

Do you plan to increase the amount of locally sourced meat in your Vermont Hannaford stores?

Meat is a challenge because local producers may not have enough volume to support additional stores.  We’re working to identify gaps in stores that don’t sell local meat and work with existing producers to see about increasing supply.

What are some incentives do you use to attract farmers and producers to sell their products at Hannaford?

We don’t charge producers fees for shelf placement if they sell through our direct delivery program. Also, we help farmers by reimbursing some of their costs to comply with USDA Good Agricultural Practices (and other equivalent food safety certifications), which is a food safety check necessary before the farmer can sell to us. The audits are between $300 and $1,000, and we typically reimburse up to $750 for each local grower, which usually covers the entire cost for smaller growers.

How do farmers or food producers get their food into Hannaford?

Right now we are at capacity with getting more local food into our stores. Until consumers buy local food consistently, we can’t increase our stores’ capacity. Consumers can do their part by buying more local food and asking for it when they don’t see what they’re looking for. The more local food consumers purchase, the more affordable and available it will be.

Learn more about Hannaford’s Local program.

Learn more about the progress being made by the Farm to Plate Network to reach the goals of Vermont’s food system plan