Vermont co-op and natural-food store managers like to tout their localvore cred. They talk about how much local food they buy and the extent to which they accommodate regional organic growers.
They have reason to boast. Even the largest operations — Healthy Living , City Market , Hunger Mountain Food Co-op , Brattleboro Food Co-op  and The Co-op Food Stores  in New Hampshire — go to great effort to source local foods from hundreds of area farmers and vendors.
Still, at the height of the growing season, only as much as 30 percent of the foods available comes from regional vendors.
Most organic products sold at Vermont co-ops and natural food stores are not local. In fact, some organic food is not even domestic. That’s because, co-op managers say, they are dependent on large distributors for products, and they simply don’t have access to domestic products in certain categories.
Fresh organic vegetables and fruit have never been readily available in winter from local sources, but now even some bulk and frozen foods come from overseas.
Several multinational companies, including Frontier Natural Products Co-op  and United Natural Foods, Inc.  (UNFI), which are dominant purveyors of organic foods in the United States, have recently started shipping products from as far away as China, India and South America to Vermont co-ops and natural food stores.
According to Jon Fogarty, a project manager for Iowa City-based National Co-operative Grocers Association  (NCGA), 70 to 90 percent of organic foods sold at co-ops in the United States are distributed by UNFI, which has 12 warehouses located throughout the country, including one in Chesterfield, N.H. Fogarty says UNFI is the largest independent distributor of organic foods in the U.S., second only to Wal-Mart. Repeated attempts to reach UNFI officials were unsuccessful.
Many of the products now grown in China for the U.S. organic market, such as garlic, used to be commonly grown in this country, according to co-op managers. Bulk-bin items listed on the UNFI website, including pine nuts, pumpkin seeds, black beans, soybeans, adzuki beans and mung beans, are all sourced from China.
In addition, most natural foods stores and co-ops offer frozen foods from Woodstock Farms , a house brand owned by UNFI that distributes imported Chinese broccoli, asparagus, spinach, peas, mushrooms, edamame and peppers. Some frozen foods from Cascadian Farm , including the company’s California mix of cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, are also from China.
Certain foods — organic nuts, produce, frozen vegetables, meat and seafood — must be labeled under the new country-of-origin labeling law known as COOL, but origination information for other organic foods is optional. With the exception of nuts, bulk-bin labels at area food stores rarely list the country of origin. That’s because, co-op managers say, it’s difficult to maintain the signage for bulk foods.
City Market in Burlington doesn’t provide country-of-origin information on most bulk bins, according to general manager Clem Nilan. The store offers organic black beans from several different sources, including UNFI and Butterworks Farm in Westfield. “It’s not that we’re trying to hide anything,” Nilan says. “The way Vermont agriculture goes, we only have black beans for a couple of weeks. We search out very diligently the local sources.”
Kari Bradley, manager of Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier, says his store doesn’t make a special effort to identify the country of origin for bulk foods because they are unbranded commodities.
“I know from produce, it’s a challenge to maintain the signage,” Bradley says. “You might be getting things from different countries, two different bags on the same day. Maybe if people knew more about it, they’d call for it. We haven’t had a lot of interest in that on the bulk side.”
Bradley says the Chinese now dominate the fresh garlic market. Hunger Mountain is working with a local source of garlic, he says, but the co-op is not able to source it from Vermont year round yet. “If you’re a grocer without a local source of garlic, like we’re fortunate to have, you don’t have a lot of options at this point,” Bradley says.
Fogarty says the NCGA is not actively pressuring UNFI to seek more domestic sources for organic food. The trade association is working on “the policy level” in Washington.
Each member “is free to choose whatever they want to sell, and they’re going to sell what their consumers purchase,” Fogarty says. “The best way to go about making these changes is for consumers not to purchase those products.”
When asked how consumers can boycott products if stores and food manufacturers don’t notify consumers of the country of origin, Fogarty said labeling is “a situation that varies from store to store.”
Nilan says there isn’t a national movement to ensure access to domestic organic foods, though co-ops in the Northeast are coming together to identify regional organic food sources. “I think there would be support from the national organization, but the effort to grow things locally will come from local organizations,” Nilan says.
Nilan says 29 percent of City Market’s food came from local vendors in October, and he prefers to buy local conventional foods over foreign organic products. “Our business model is around local food, and so our buying strategy, should all things be equal, [is that] the local product is better,” Nilan says. “That means there’s no price differentiation or nothing qualitatively different, like one is organic and one is conventional.”
The source of ingredients for processed foods is even more opaque, according to Vermont store managers. COOL labeling doesn’t come into play for packaged food products with UPC bar codes such as sauces, snack foods and soy products. Nilan says, “We frankly don’t know” where the ingredients for soup mixes and other products come from.
Eli Lesser-Goldsmith, manager of Healthy Living in South Burlington, says his store works hard to find local and domestic organic food, but it isn’t always easy to come up with U.S. sources, particularly for frozen foods. Healthy Living carries the Woodstock Farms label.
“The entire frozen supply chain is even more complicated and even more limited than the regular supply chain,” Lesser-Goldsmith says. “Frozen foods are incredibly difficult to handle. If something gets warm for 15 minutes, it’s not salable. If it were up to me, I would tell everyone to just eat fresh foods. I don’t back frozen foods at all. It’s not what we’re all about at Healthy Living. I want people to eat fresh breads, fresh vegetables.”
He says he hasn’t heard a single complaint from a customer about the independent natural food store’s products from overseas.
“People are pretty trusting of our store and the products that we pick,” Lesser-Goldsmith says. “We really take care in choosing all of our products and make sure they stick to our guidelines for cleanliness, health benefits, environmental impact. Not everything is going to be a beautiful tomato from Hinesburg that was grown on an organic farm.”