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Safeway Pulls Plug on Mock Farmers’ Market

Leon Kaye | Friday July 9th, 2010 | 1 Comment

In a doomed marketing move that some would find cheeky and others, deceitful, a Safeway store in Kirkland, Washington, decided to sell its fruits and vegetables “farmer-market” style.  A huge yellow banner announced the new parking lot market, and tents were set up to greet weekend shoppers.

No word yet whether the employees had to get up at 3:00 a.m. to drive to work for those Saturday morning affairs, wear funny hats, or bellow out “farm-fresh, $2 a pound here!”

Unfortunately for the marketing guru who planned this event, the manager of the nearby Redmond Saturday Market, Martha Tyler, happened to drive by a few days before, and in a pique of curiosity, asked which farmers would sell at the market, and then the truth came out . . . Safeway employees would be selling the produce, much of which is trucked across several state lines or hauled from overseas.

Wouldn’t making your workers toil in a parking lot for several hours break union rules?

Safeway’s charade did not last long.  Tyler contacted the Washington State Farmers’ Market Association, which in a letter to Safeway’s management, noted that the state’s law defines a farmers’ market as one at which at least five farmers are selling their produce directly to consumers.  The Safeway executives quickly replied, and dropped the farmers’ market from the banner, replacing it with “weekend outdoor market.”

So why would anyone pull a silly stunt like that?

The answer in part lies at the Los Angeles Wholesale Farmer’s Market, which I visited Thursday morning at 3:00 a.m. because our home is hosting a World Cup party on Sunday. I figured I could find some great produce, I thought I would buy it directly from the source—and I did!  I found some great local raspberries, radicchio, figs, and tomatoes.  But the vast majority of the produce was from industrial farms–not from the farmers we have gotten to know at our local neighborhood farmers’ markets.  And majority of the fruits and vegetables available at the huge complex of warehouses on 7th and Alameda Streets looked as if it had been at—surprise!—another warehouse for weeks.  Much of the smaller fruits like grapes and cherries, were already bagged in individual plastic bags or containers.  (I always through the store workers did that!)  And I won’t even get into the pesticides that are probably on all that produce.

So more consumers are becoming aware of the environmental and economic effects of transporting produce across long distances, not to mention the dull taste of food that sits in cold storage for weeks.  Farmers’ markets are commonplace and no longer for the “crunchy-granola” types.  Foodies want fruit that has flavor, and parents want their children to eat their vegetables, pesticide-free, of course.  Most want avocados from California, not Chile.

These markets also offer opportunities to small farmers that do not have access to behemoth distributors, or who would just rather sell directly to the buyer, giving them more profit instead of the middlemen.  Many of these farmers till land that cannot quite yet be certified as organic, denying them those USDA organic labels on their goods—but the food is still of high quality and is organic in farming practices, if not by “official standards.”

So no wonder why supermarket chains are seeing a marketing opportunity here.  But having employees masquerading as hucksters selling zucchini that has been hibernating in storage for weeks is not only insulting to the folks who work and drive for long hours, it is dishonest.  Why not just invite the farmers to your store’s parking lot?  It only takes a few calls or blast emails.  They do use telephones and the ‘net, too, you know!


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