These days, it’s common knowledge that American food shoppers want local. At Willy Street Co-op, it’s been that way for 35 years. The complex business relationships needed to maintain a large inventory of locally produced and prepared grocery goods have been standard operating practice here since day one. Boiled down, it’s a way to make sure our Owners and customers get what they came for.

In the Kitchen and Deli, we’ve continually challenged ourselves to incorporate more locally grown and prepared foods as base elements in our Kitchen catalog. For a number of reasons, although this seems like a simpler, more straightforward way to approach sourcing ingredients, it can be difficult to manage inventory and offer competitive pricing when buying from many small growers who are accustomed to direct-to-market pricing. Restaurants can usually buy smaller amounts at higher prices and make it work for them, while we have to look for the best deals on large shipments of produce so we can keep the costs in line on the shelf. Likewise, buying and cooking seasonally is great—but can seem awfully limiting in the middle of a Wisconsin February.

This year, we made the decision to include non-organic fresh produce in our prepared foods, but only when Wisconsin-grown by a producer known to us to practice agriculture responsibly. We had, for some time, been aware of a bumper of locally grown crops that are not certified organic but are excellent, affordable and, most importantly, sourced very close to home. Until now, we could only take advantage of a limited number of these due to our “organic only” purchasing policy on fresh produce. We felt that some of these opportunities were not only too good to miss from a quality and cost standpoint, but also that we were failing to answer our customer’s perennially voiced preference for local first, organic second.

Here’s a good example of practicing agriculture responsibly: last week, West Produce Manager Megan Blodgett and I attended the IFM (Institutional Food Market) Coalition tour of the Tri-County Produce Auction, just north of the town of Dalton. In the huge shed, darkened by stormy skies and the lack of electricity, a consortium of Amish growers met to auction off fresh produce in lots large and small to consumers ranging from roadside stand buyers and health institutions to large local grocery stores. Norman Miller, an organic farmer himself and the manager of the auction, met with our group to explain the auction process. Quickly, the conversation turned to food safety and inspection standards. I asked Norman what percentage of the families auctioning off produce that day ate the food they grew on their farms and brought to market. “100%” was his answer.

To me, this underscores a key factor in why the local movement has exploded. As organics have become big business (they were in Europe well before they were here), the connection between grower and food has become more and more tenuous. When you buy a cucumber from a farmer and—organic or not—you know the fruit from that same plant that went to feed their child, you’re getting something a label cannot offer. Likewise, you cannot even get this kind of information unless you involve yourself with the local chain of food supply. We decided to do that this year and to keep you informed every step of the way.

To do that, we’re tracking each farm we buy from and keeping the produce we receive from them and the name and location of the farm posted in our Delis. Most of our local purchases are made and received once a week, so the boards will be updated weekly. We aim to use as much of this local produce as we can, so if you read, “Beets this week are from Stone Circle Farm in Reeseville and are certified organic” (as are the beets we received as I was writing this article), you’ll be able to see multiple salads or entrees in our Delis that feature those beets. We also hope to get some of these growers in to the Delis in person to meet you and sample out the recipes their produce is featured in. Look for these new and delicious, Wisconsin-grown foods in your Willy Street Co-op Deli and let us know what you think.