Where are they now: Chelsea Wagner
Farm Fresh Food, Close to Home
When Emma Sanchi walks through the sliding doors of the Hannaford supermarket in Old Town, Maine, she weaves through the checkout area and heads straight for the produce section. The air smells of salty deli meat and fried onion rings; a constant rumble of shopping carts and crinkling plastic bags resonates off the walls. In the produce section, her eyes begin scanning the rows of fresh vegetables and fruits. Juicy oranges, crisp leafy greens and plump red tomatoes form perfect rows, mimicking the landscape of a farm. After a few moments, she finds what they have been searching for. She spots a tiny red label with the words Close to Home delicately printed on the skin of a shiny winter squash.
These tiny red labels signal to customers that the product is locally produced. Currently, Hannaford carries 5,000 different locally made and grown products throughout stores in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New York. And their numbers increase every year.
The Close to Home program is flourishing with the help of Chelsea Wagner, a University of Maine Biology graduate who is now a specialist in Hannaford’s Close to Home department. She is dedicated to increasing the number of locally grown foods and products available in Hannaford stores. By working with local farms, Wagner acts as a liaison between farmers and managers at 185 Hannaford locations.
The program began in 2008, but its commitment to local food had formed during the company’s inception. Hannaford sprouted its roots on the Portland waterfront in 1883, where the Hannaford brothers sold locally grown produce from a single farm stand. Nearly 130 harvest seasons later, the company is still as committed to locally sourced food as ever.
“Buying local is extremely important,” said Sanchi. “You are supporting local farms while also supporting your community, and the environment as a whole. Our society relies on monocropping systems that may be economically efficient, but are environmentally unsustainable. We need a new way of looking at our food system, and the first step is supporting locally grown food. Why buy lettuce from Mexico when it’s grown down the street?”
Though each Hannaford location provides different local products, the company as a whole supports 150 local farms, 700 local vendors, and 5,000 locally made products across their five states of operation. Even in the winter months, the program still remains strong, providing local products such as bread, cheese, wine, meat and beer all year long.
In the Old Town Hannaford, the largest grocery store close to the University of Maine, the most popular local products include Todd’s Original Salsa, Little Lads Popcorn, Swans Raw Honey and, of course—local produce. As a third-year sustainable agriculture student at UMaine, Sanchi is committed to supporting local farmers and she is not the only one. Sanchi is one of a growing number of consumers who see the benefits of buying local food, and she is thankful Hannaford shares her philosophy.
Wagner’s mission as an advocate for locally based food is to encourage a larger consumer base to support local products and to tell the stories of Hannaford’s close-to-home producers so that customers can develop connections with their food and their community. With a degree in biology, a background in farming and a passion for local food, Wagner is equipped to help local businesses and farmers navigate their products to the shelves.
Wagner majored in biology at the University of Maine in Orono, with the intent of pursuing a career in Optometry. However, she had many friends in the sustainable agriculture degree program at UMaine and the connection between farming and science intrigued her. Having a strong background in biology, she decided to explore the relationship herself.
After graduation, Wagner pursued a year-long apprenticeship with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association (MOFGA), where she worked on Willow Pond Farm in Sabattus, Maine. The diverse farm featured seven acres of organic vegetable fields and 11 acres of apple orchards. After their farm had finished the community supported agriculture program (CSA) at the end of the summer, Wagner delivered the rest of the harvested apples to local Hannaford stores.
“I had an incredible experience during my apprenticeship with Willow Pond Farm, and the experiences I gained in agriculture, as well as during my education, have carried into my own life, and paved the way to my current career.
After completing her apprenticeship in November 2013, Wagner applied to biological institutions throughout Maine, looking for a position that would harness the knowledge she gained as an undergraduate. A family friend suggested that she apply to Hannaford’s, so she sent her resume into the corporate office in hopes that a position involving local food would surface.
When Wagner sent in her resume, Hannaford was seeking someone with farming experience and a passion for local food. She was called in for an interview, and even though it went smoothly, she brushed off the interview as a lost cause for her lack of corporate experience. Three weeks later, she received a phone call offering her the position. A year out of college, Wagner, 23, obtained a corporate position at Hannaford Supermarket and hit the ground running.
“I put a lot of hard work throughout my education without any idea of what I wanted to do with my degree I just embraced whatever I was interested in at the time,” said Wagner. “ It’s funny how much your mind changes. Eventually, you just have to trust that everything will work itself out. You have to be extremely persistent when you graduate and ready for whatever comes your way. I may not be in this job for my whole life, but I will take this experience I gain here and apply my knowledge to whatever I dive into next. But I know for a fact that I am definitely in the right field…I would not be where I am now if it wasn’t for the education I received at the University of Maine.”
For the past year, Wagner has been in charge of communicating with farmers and local businesses from Maine to New York to increase the number of locally sourced products available to Hannaford customers, and to make the process smoother and more accessible for farmers. One aspect of her position is working with marketing to label products accordingly to allow customers to see where their food is coming from. In this way, customers know that they are supporting their local economy by deciding what they put in their carts.
As the local movement continues to spread across the country, Hannaford customers have a growing interest in locally sourced products. In last year alone, Hannaford saw a 35% increase in local produce sales compared to the previous year, says Wagner. By purchasing produce grown close to home, consumers are encouraging the success of their local economies while supporting their environment. According to Hannaford, the company saw a six percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions from product transportation in 2011.
For Lakeside Family Farm located in Newport Maine, Wagner has been an invaluable resource to their success with the Close to Home program. The farm is committed to providing locally grown, farm fresh food to the people of Maine in a reliable and accessible way. “We have felt truly blessed to have Chelsea working with Hannaford,” said Sarah Redfield, co owner of Lakeside family farm. “She has strong Maine roots, an environmental background, and commitment to the cause. She brings a fresh perspective to her position and recognizes the common purpose of connecting customers to their communities. Hannaford’s commitment to local is a great program, and it is here to stay. One of the ways they ensure this is hiring an individual like Chelsea.”
Wagner was recently featured in the Portland Press Herald.