While the Safeway produce aisle is dotted with signs advertising "locally grown produce," Dixon cantaloupes are the sole Montana-grown item in the chain's West Broadway store. The melons appear alongside Canadian tomatoes, Peruvian asparagus and corn grown in Washington state.
"I'd like to see them define what local really is," says Maggie Allen, winding her way out of the produce aisle with a bag of nectarines imported from out of state.
Defining "locally grown," depends on one's perspective. While Safeway aims to buy food raised close to home—stocking Flathead cherries earlier this year and selling Montana-grown peaches this fall—it can be challenging to find producers equipped to handle Safeway-sized quantities, according to store spokesperson Cherie Myers. She adds that because Safeway requires producers carry insurance to protect against legal liability, sometimes Washington state is as local as the store can get.
"If produce is available for us to buy, we will buy it," Myers says. "We do buy as much local produce as we can."
But others call Safeway's "local" claims bunk. The Missoula Community Food Co-op, for instance, defines local produce as that grown within Montana's borders.
"Their claims to locally grown are a little on the ridiculous side," says Co-op Coordinator Kate Keller about Safeway.
Keller says that as consumers across the country become increasingly educated about the benefits of eating homegrown grub, some businesses are attempting to co-op the local brand. It's a practice called "localwashing."
"I do feel like it's becoming a marketing term that's being thrown around a lot more, specifically to make a profit," Keller says.
She recommends that shoppers keep an eye on where their food comes from to help create local supply networks independent of environmentally and nutritionally draining shipping costs. Otherwise, "it's not a sustainable system," she says.