The distribution center at Ingles Markets is massive—1.6 million square feet. We’re in a motorized cart, whizzing past towers of food and grocery items.
Ingles employee Elizabeth Harris is at the wheel, taking us through a refrigerated produce section filled with pallets of lettuce and tomatoes. The warehouse is like a grocery store on steroids, with enough food to supply over 200 stores.
As we zoom through the warehouse, it’s worth thinking about how grocery stores like Ingles work with local farmers. Robert Ingles started the chain with one store in Asheville in 1963. Western North Carolina was more remote back then, and it took a lot of work to get food through the mountains.
“The relationships that he had to have to get food into the local stores, whether it was produce or meats, were established in many respects way back then, 50 years ago,” says Leah McGrath, corporate dietitian at Ingles. It’s her job to communicate with the public and talk to the store’s buyers about what consumers want. She’s heard plenty of stories about how Ingles worked with farmers at the beginning, back when farmers showed up at stores with baskets of tomatoes in their pickup trucks.
Things have changed since then, but not that much. William Shelton has grown produce for the grocery chain for nearly 20 years. He got his foot in the door by bringing a box of his lettuce to their office. Now Ingles sends a truck three times a week to his farm in Whittier, North Carolina to pick up lettuce and tomatoes.
He says they don’t have a formal contract; their partnership is built on mutual trust. The system works surprisingly well, even when weather sometimes gets in the way. McGrath remembers a bad summer a few years back when blight and floods knocked out many Western North Carolina farms’ tomato harvest. “We had almost no local tomatoes,” she says. “It was terrible.”
William Shelton agrees that it was a really bad year, and having a buyer like Ingles helped him through it. “Usually when you have a disaster like that, of course your production volume is diminished, and so when that happens you have to have a good enough price point to be able to recover your expenses and ensure that you can put in a crop the next year,” he says.
These partnerships with farmers are part of a larger trend of grocery stores increasing local food offerings. Leah McGrath says that’s driven by the financial benefits of reducing shipping costs, and also customer demand. She sees that demand in Western North Carolina more than other places in the Southeast.
“So I think that listening to what consumers want and also having that really vibrant local food and farming community at your fingertips makes it a lot easier in Western North Carolina. I see a little bit of that in Upstate South Carolina, more in the past few years than before, I’m not seeing a whole lot of that yet in East Tennessee and North Georgia is pretty spread out,” she says. “I think we have such a concentrated community here and a lot of that has to do with what ASAP had set up years ago.”
She says another reason why customer demand has grown are events like Taste of Local. Once or twice a month, farmers and makers of local food products come to stores to share samples and talk with customers.
Farmer William Shelton says that these types of programs have put grocery stores like Ingles at the forefront. “I feel like they heard that message maybe a little bit sooner than a lot of other retailers, but it’s something that seems to continue to catch on and is catching on with other retailers and I hope that’s a trend that continues,” he says.
Find more grocery stores that offer food from local farms in ASAP’s Local Food Guide.