Thursday, January 02, 2014

agriculturablogger: Navigating the New Food Movement:

Navigating the New Food Movement: What does (and should) 'local' mean to the grocer? Some insights from the social scientists

Category: The New Food Movement

Buy local food? Why?

Photo: Flickr/Steve Rhodes. Used under CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0. Some rights reserved.

"Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food each year. Yet only 10 percent stays in our state," laments Nebraska's agrarian populists at the Center for Rural Affairs. "Shouldn't we expect most of the food we purchase to come from our state?"

Consternation over the excessive "food miles" your products travel in order to get from the farm field to your store have led those like the Center's authors to argue to consumers and regulators that food systems can only be sustainable and socially just if they originate within a set number of miles. But one vexing problem remains: How exactly to define the vague and soft term "local."

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" the Center's authors have written, "have no precise definitions, nor is it legally defined in the way that legislation has defined 'organic.'  Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."

With so much confusion over a basic definition, what's a local-centric grocer to do?

Ignore it. Here's why.

Several interesting articles from one scholarly journal have recently attempted to get their hands around the meaning from both an academic's and a consumer's point of view. Some valuable lessons can be taken for the grocer interested in appealing to that class of shoppers:

  • In "Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in its place," Pennsylvania's Kutztown University scholar Steven Schnell argues that focusing on food miles cheapens and causes us to miss what's really important about why citizens seem to yearn for local food. "The dialogue over food miles...," he says, "has largely centered not on complex reality, but on a caricature, and a single variable stripped of its context." Local eating is not really about mileage, Schnell believes; it's about connecting people to a community. Trying to assign an ideal number of miles oversimplifies a complex process in which shoppers are trying to connect with  particular producers, particular markets, particular environments and particular people. Food, he believes, is simply one part of that "narrative" they tell themselves about where they fit in the world.
  • In "CSA membership and psychological needs fulfillment: an application of self-determination theory" a group of University of Wisconsin ecologists examine the pyschological needs driving why consumers join Community Supported Agriculture buying programs, subscription-based direct-buying programs that connect local shoppers with local farms. Through interviews with those buying members about why they join and leave CSAs, they suggest those local-buying programs meet shoppers' needs to feel independent and in control of their own lives, capable and competent in providing for themselves, and related to people and communities surrounding them. Although the Wisconsin researchers concede they have only scratched the surface of the deep psychology behind local food buying, they suggest the field is ripe for further research, including if, why and how shoppers better meet those psychological needs by shopping at a farmers market vs. at a supermarket.
  • In the article "Beyond agriculture: the counter-hegemony of community farming," British social scientists approach the motivations of local food buying by considering it as a new form of liesure activity, in which shoppers are at heart attempting to exert some rebellion against authority by participating, vicariously though it may be, in growing their own food. Sort of like an avid golfer who eventually turns a sport into work in order to set himself apart by excelling at something others cannot do, local-food advocates who are so involved they go so far as to volunteer their time to help plant and harvest at local community-supported farms are similarly disguising a non-essential liesure activity as hard work that sets them apart from the power anonymousing forces of modern society. By participating in local farming, they are "busy constructing meaningful lives outside of conventional work and leisure activities that bear all the hallmarks of a big leisure project, although it is no longer understood (or performed) in these terms," they write. "...the majority of the participants in the CSA did not routinely view their activities and deployment of time as leisure per se. Rather, they viewed their participation as a part of their wider lives, part of their personal project...[that] speaks to others about who we are, what we hold to be valuable and how we can make a difference.''

What does that all mean to grocers looking for opportunity in the local food department?

In this broader sense, "local" is a double-edged sword for locally owned, community grocers. You can't fake the authenticity consumers are longing for when they buy local. So the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. On the other hand, if consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community, few retailers are in better position to lead that than the community focused grocer.

As this essay explains, if true, then the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.

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Rodrigo González Fernández
Diplomado en "Responsabilidad Social Empresarial" de la ONU
Diplomado en "Gestión del Conocimiento" de la ONU
Diplomado en Gerencia en Administracion Publica ONU
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