Jennifer Badger is a matchmaker who connects shoppers with palate-pleasing products made close to home. As category manager of local foods for The Fresh Market for the eastern United States, the CALS agricultural business graduate is taking on new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic.
A mix of art and science goes into finding the right assortment of local products and choosing where they appear in 159 Fresh Market locations.
In addition to delving into data to understand the retail landscape and diet trends, Badger samples products to better understand regional flavor preferences, such as barbecue sauces and sweet potatoes in North Carolina.
I rolled the dice a little bit, and I’m so glad that I did. My life would not be the same without attending NC State.
Badger has seen sales of local foods increase by about a third since she started. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, growth was forecast for 2020.
“Consumer interest in where food comes from, who makes it and additional traceability information is definitely a trend we’re seeing across our stores,” she says.
“We define local as anything made in North Carolina or made within 100 miles of the store that product is going to be sold in.”
Badger turns to the closest regional source if there’s a need for products that aren’t made within a 100-mile radius. Milk and dairy products for Charlotte metro customers, for example, come from Virginia.
Buying local provides benefits beyond tasty foods, such as reducing the carbon footprint.
“When fresh food products are not being trucked to a warehouse and then to a store, it reduces the amount of fuel, time and other resources necessary for distribution,” Badger says, adding that it helps build the local economy.
Beyond meeting consumer demand, Badger works with distribution, scanning and computer systems, and she helps suppliers with legal and food safety paperwork.
“When I started with The Fresh Market, there were no clear guidelines for our local program, and I knew that our national vendor submission form was confusing enough for me,” Badger says. “The business side of things doesn’t come naturally for everyone, and the legal requirements for states vary, so it can get confusing and overwhelming.”
She helped create a “Local 101” cheat sheet that explains what the quality assurance team needs from merchants and local vendors as well as what the store needs to provide. “Our goal with The Fresh Market’s local program is to make wholesaling products easy to understand so that our food producers can spend time in the kitchen doing what they love.”
Meeting Higher Demand
In Badger’s role, supply and demand is critical, especially during a global pandemic. Like so many stores around the country, The Fresh Market experienced increased sales as shoppers stockpiled supplies.
Starting in January, it was vitamin supplements. As the COVID-19 pandemic continued, more shelf-stable items, like baking supplies, began flying off store shelves.
“The sales volumes we’ve experienced are about the same as what we see during a hurricane plus a holiday. It’s a huge surge of sales and the national supply chains have felt pressure,” Badger says. “I’m so happy we have a local program in place and have been able to fill those gaps.”
One of those gaps: local half-and-half and heavy cream.
“Those were two items that we could not keep enough supply. As soon as we got products in, it was out the door.”
Taste for Business
Badger grew up in Brevard, North Carolina, on her family’s homestead. “We had a huge garden, and some of it we used ourselves and whatever was left over, we sold at the local tailgate market.”
That’s where an 8-year-old Badger learned how to run a business, earning her first $100 selling wild, handpicked blackberries.
“They sold really well. I don’t remember ever taking blackberries home,” she says. “Being in that environment definitely sparked my interest in local food and agriculture business.”
First-Generation College Student
For college, NC State was a natural fit. Because the land-grant university’s roots are in agriculture, Badger didn’t apply anywhere else.
“I was confident in NC State and what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I rolled the dice a little bit, and I’m so glad that I did. My life would not be the same without attending NC State.”
However, college was new for Badger and her family.
“I’m a first-generation college student, and I’m super proud of that,” she says. “My dad worked in textile manufacturing pretty much his whole life, and my mom worked for the credit union as a loan officer.”
Like many people in 2008, Badger’s father lost his job. “That was a pivotal time for me, because I was going into high school and thinking about college. My parents were huge advocates of my desire to continue learning.”
Badger landed a part-time internship with CALS Career Services her freshman year and worked there throughout college. The position did more than help pay her way through school; it also taught her about professionalism and job searches.
“If I have any advice for current CALS students, it would be to visit CALS Career Services.”
Take it from an alum who’s learned to make the most of an opportunity.