by Lou Mancinelli
Buying and eating from local farmers and local food producers has almost become a cliché. But at Weavers Way, the numbers are proving how the phrase can play out in a tangible way and have a quantifiable impact on the community.
During the 2013-2014 fiscal year, which concludes at the end of this month, sales of local goods will have accounted for 35 percent of the store’s total merchandise, according to Stephanie Kane, Local Purchasing Coordinator for Weavers Way. The year before it was 27 percent.
This local strength has occurred in a market where independently owned grocery stores and markets have to compete with the mega-buying power of giant chains like Safeway/Albertson’s, a supermarket network that includes 2,400 stores and 250,000 employees.
Meanwhile, not only grocery supermarkets but various national and multi-national brands are often owned by one parent company. For example, Pepsi owns Gatorade and Tropicana, Doritos and Tostitos. General Mills owns Betty Crocker, Good Earth and Nature Valley.
As Weavers Way Cooperative, however, Stephanie Kane is looking for products made or grown within 150 miles of its stores in Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy, not in China, India or Slovakia.
She’s responsible for making sure the store is living up to the “Eat local, buy local” ethos, one of the key points of the Weavers Way mission. She’s discovering how many Philadelphia area businesses make products with organic ingredients and non-genetically modified organisms (GMOs). She has discovered how big business has set up an infrastructure that smaller local businesses and farms lack.
“It’s set up for bananas from Ecuador to come here, for example,” said Kane last week in an interview, “but it’s not really set up for produce to come from across Philadelphia.”
In that regard, it is the logistics that sometimes become the most difficult part for both buyer and seller. So while locally grown food can be ideal, there’s more to it than just yielding fruit. There’s a whole network behind connecting local vendors with buyers. Kane’s job is on the buying end of that equation.
She’s responsible for continuing and developing relationships with local vendors. Weavers Way carries items from 200 different local vendors, so there are many who want their products at Weavers Way who contact her. She’s also constantly on the lookout for new products that fit the Weavers Way profile.
For example, Kane recently chanced upon Long Cove Foods vegan scrapple. She went on a Saturday to The Artisan Exchange, an indoor artisans and farmers market in West Chester. Long Cove’s production is a microcosm of the local movement. Based in West Chester, its vegan scrapple is made with non-GMO fresh-stone-ground cornmeal from Castle Valley Mill in Doylestown, just-picked organically grown vegetables from Thornbury Farm in West Chester and Mother Earth non-GMO mushrooms from Kennett Square.
Another part of the local movement has been small business incubators like The Center for Culinary Enterprise in University City. That’s how Karma Krisps, all-natural crackers made from dried fruits and nuts and nutritious seeds, came to be sold at Weavers Way.
Kane, 31, was a geography major at Ohio State University, having been raised outside of Cleveland. “Early on,” she wrote in a magazine article, “I was obsessed with the queen of all things homemade, Martha Stewart, and I grew up most interested in learning how to make the perfect pie crust. But despite my suburban roots, my childhood memories that stand out the most are of pick-your-own berry farms, bonfires and hands stained from cracking piles of black walnuts from our neighbor’s tree.”
Towards the end of college she began researching urban farms around the country and discovered there was a strong network in Philadelphia. When it was time to get a job, after working for an urban farm in Cleveland, she thought Philly would be the kind of place where she could merge her interest in urban farming and sustainability with her work life.
There were places like Greensgrow Farms in Fishtown, Mariposa Cooperative in West Philadelphia and Weavers Way. They had programs that connected communities that traditionally did not have access to locally grown fresh produce with fresh fruits and vegetables. She started at Weavers Way when she moved to Philadelphia in 2010.
There are many items at Weavers Way, like dry goods such as pasta and rice, that are not made locally and are purchased from distributors. Vegetables that are available all year long, like tomatoes, have to be bought elsewhere when they are out of season here. But from early summer until late September, when she can buy them locally, Kane does. That goes for any seasonal items carried by the store. “Once they’re available locally, we’re getting them,” she said.
Finding products you would not expect to be made in this area is another part of the job she likes to explore. That’s how Weavers Way came to sell tea made by Jubilee Hill, a local organic farm, whose growers Kane met at a farmers market in Germantown. “I thought that was really interesting,” said Kane, who lives downtown. “Who knew anyone in this area made tea.”
Weavers Way’s Chestnut Hill store is located at 8424 Germantown Ave. More information at 215-866-9150 or www.weaversway.coop.