Co-authored by Beth Tacular, Jenny Schnaak, and Beth Hopping
A strong local economy creates better communities with more locally owned businesses and higher standards of living, and it is better for the environment. The practice of seeking out local food, local fuel, purchasing from the smaller “mom and pop” businesses (and possibly paying a little more) all help contribute positively to a vibrant community. But not all community resilience habits cost you hard-earned money – it’s about getting involved.
Knowing your farmer is a local economy practice, and with all the food-based disease from big agriculture these days, we believe that getting to know your farmer is all important. Keeping our community vibrant and healthy is in our mission at Abundance NC: cultivating and celebrating community resilience.
One way Abundance NC does this is through our active engagement in the local economy. We stage events that bring lots of visitors to our town, and we hold workshops on skills that make people more resilient in hard economic times. We also act as the fiscal sponsor for two fascinating and exciting “local economy” projects: Slow Money, which is about re-capitalizing our local food shed, and The PLENTY, which is our local currency.
Social, Economic, Health and Environmental Impacts of a Healthy Community Food System
Local food systems can have an economic multiplier effect in a given community, enhance social ties and promote social interaction, lessen environmental burdens through reduced transportation emissions, maintain agricultural lands, and improve access to healthy foods, among other demonstrated potential benefits (Figure 1, above ).(2,7–12) Thus, strengthening local food systems has potential to foster healthier community environments in support of individual health.
“Local food” has become a much-discussed topic in recent years, but there is little evidence to date that foods produced and consumed within close proximity provide greater nutritional value (i.e., nutrient density) than the same types of foods that have been transported from a greater distance.(2,14) In other words, an apple grown in one’s backyard is not necessarily more nutritious than an apple grown on the opposite side of the country and shipped to the neighborhood grocery store. However, a positive association has been observed between local food purchasing and fruit and vegetable consumption, indicating a potential benefit to buying local.(13) Auxiliary benefits of supporting and strengthening local food systems include: keeping jobs and money in communities, enhancing social ties, and reducing the distance food must travel to consumers, thereby potentially reducing carbon emissions and environmental degradation.(14,15)
Many complex, interrelated determinants impact human health, including economic, social, and environmental factors.(1,3) The food system, from food production through consumption, includes multiple levels of potential influence on food-related behaviors that impact the community economy. The current national food system favors larger-scale farms, a vertically integrated supply chain, and broad distribution networks.(4,5) While multiple definitions of “local food systems” exist, here we refer to food that is consumed within the same state (i.e., North Carolina) in which it was produced (with reasonable exceptions made to include neighboring states in border communities).(4,6)
“If all North Carolina residents spent 10 percent of their food dollars on local foods ($1.05 per day), approximately $3.5 billion would be available in the local economy every year, part of which would flow back to farmers and food businesses”(30,31)
Why Do We Buy Local Food?
Existing literature about consumer behavior indicates that individual-level factors, including freshness, quality, health benefits, and food safety, are primary issues motivating local food purchasing.(16–19) Community-level factors like “giving back to the community,” “keeping dollars in the community,” “supporting small farmers,” “farmers receiving fair returns,” and various other social and environmental issues influence consumers to a lesser extent. Although there is currently no legal definition of “local,” many people associate the local label with foods being “natural” and “pesticide-free” in addition to the standard geographic connotations.(20) Price differences between local and nonlocal foods may be one deterrent for consumers, especially among lower-income populations. Studies have found that although many people believe local products are of greater value and are worth spending more money for, they still may not be willing to pay higher prices.(16,21) Further, a majority of survey respondents in one study (61%) indicated that lower prices would encourage them to purchase more locally produced foods.(16) Additional studies, however, have found that people are willing to pay extra for food that they believe supports health, social, and environmental benefits.(16,20,22)
Mintel Group Ltd, a privately owned market research firm, recently investigated consumer attitudes and behaviors around local food purchasing, and the recommendations generated for grocery marketers included the following:
“Most Americans are drawn to the selflessness of living local. They acknowledge the importance of having community pride, want to support their local economies as well as American-made products and services, and find value in giving back to their local areas. However, they also acknowledge that there is a limit in what consumers can reasonably do to support their communities, and much of that determination comes down to convenience. Consumers want to purchase local products—namely the local produce that they tend to most associate with their own health—but they don’t want to go out of their way to get them. Marketers should be encouraged to find more ways to bring the local products consumers want directly, or at least in closer proximity, to them. In this way, local involvement can be positioned as being mutually beneficial to communities as well as the residents on which communities depend. Consumers wanting at least some personal gain from their local efforts will also feel better accommodated.”(16,29)
Where Do We Buy Local Food?
More respondents reported purchasing local foods in the “grocery and retail stores in which I regularly shop” than anywhere else, including farmers’ markets.(29) These findings, presented to grocery marketers and retailers, indicate that there is a perceived market for local food, and that retailers simply need to make it available and convenient to consumers. Interestingly, although most food production occurs in rural and/or low-SES areas, the perception among retailers appears to be that this consumer base either does not care enough about or cannot afford locally produced food (personal communication with Lowes Foods corporate executives, 2014), even though this contradicts previous research among low-income individuals.(26)
Who Buys Local Food in North Carolina?
Various demographic characteristics are associated with local food purchasing behavior. Women tend to be slightly more likely to purchase local food than men,(16,23) which may be due to the finding that women are more likely to be impacted by social influences.(24) Consumers who report having a connection to agriculture or live in a rural area, as well as individuals with higher education and income levels, may be more likely to purchase local foods.(25)
A survey conducted in North Carolina found that white families, lower-income families, families in rural areas, families with children who ate 5 or more servings of vegetables per day, and families with children in poor health were more likely to purchase local food.(26) However, additional studies report that demographic factors are inconsistent in predicting the likelihood of local food purchasing, and that “attitudinal factors” (e.g., “liking to cook”) are more strongly predictive.(25,27,28)
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2. Frith, K. “Is Local More Nutritious?” It Depends. Harvard Sch. Public Heal. (2007). at <http://chge.med.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/resources/local_nutrition.pdf>
3. Robinson, T. Applying the socio-ecological model to improving fruit and vegetable intake among low-income African Americans. J. Community Health 33, 395–406 (2008).
4. Palma, M. A., Morgan, K., Woods, T. & Mccoy, S. Response of Land Grant Universities to the Increase in Consumer Demand for Local Foods in the South. 28, (2013).
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11. Lamie, R. D. et al. Local Food Systems in the South : A Call for a Collaborative Approach to Assessment. 28, (2013).
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16. Grabowski, G. Living Local: Issues in the market. Mintel (2013).
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19. Schneider, M. L. & Francis, C. a. Marketing locally produced foods: Consumer and farmer opinions in Washington County, Nebraska. Renew. Agric. Food Syst. 20, 252–260 (2007).
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27. Zepeda, L. & Leviten-reid, C. Consumers ’ Views on Local Food.
28. Verain, M. C. D. et al. Segments of sustainable food consumers: a literature review. Int. J. Consum. Stud. 36, 123–132 (2012).
29. Grabowski, G. Living Local: Issues in the market infographic. Mintel 2013 (2013).
30. North Carolina Agriculture: Regional Perspectives (Raleigh, NC: Agricultural Advancement Consortium, N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, March 2009), http://www.ncruralcenter.org/pubs/2009may_ag_regionalperspectives.pdf (accessed January 28, 2010).
31. Calculated using data from U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Marketing Service, “North Carolina: Population Profile,” Transportation and Marketing, 2004, http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/getfile?dDocName=STELPRDC5058244&acct=stmktprfl (accessed January 28, 2010) and “North Carolina,” State and County Quick Facts, U.S. Census Bureau Web site, http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/37000.html (accessed January 28, 2010).