Local’s The New Organic

Local’s The New Organic

Yup, that’s right. One of 2015 food trends is the local food movement in which consumers are becoming more educated and more concerned with the process and sourcing and ingredients that go into their foods, and rightfully so; responsible food sourcing is a trend that’s here to stay. Organic was one of the first trends to disrupt the mass-manufactured food scene but the more educated consumers become, the more they want even better foods and that means local. Often times, the two go hand in hand but that isn’t always the case, and recent reports suggest that locally sourced foods are becoming more important in the consumer mindset than organic.

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David Sprinkle, a Packaged Facts research director says that “We’ve reached a tipping point for local foods,” meaning that the focus on local food could easily surpass the sales of “organic” food. However, “consumers take the term ‘local’ and they infer that it’s from a small farm, they infer it’s organic, even though it may not be,” says Shermain Hardesty, PhD, extension economist at UC Davis’ agricultural and resource economics program.

In short, many questions are being raised about the integrity of the term “local.” Some consumers feel that this label is often used as marketing hype, yet “the Packaged Facts report notes, nearly half of people surveyed said that they are willing to pay up to 10% more for locally grown or produced foods, and almost one in three said they are willing to pay up to 25% more.” There isn’t a definitive ‘agreed upon’ definition of “locally-grown,” as there isn’t a consensus on the distance from farm to shelf or whether local means it necessarily comes from small farms at all.  Though this trend is a seemingly positive trend, there isn’t always transparency in regards to the true source of the food.

Local Food Movement

Locally sourced food, or local food, is defined by the 2008 Farm Act, an agricultural policy law as a “locally or regionally produced agricultural food product” as one that’s marketed less than 400 miles from its origin. That’s like driving from Rhode Island to Washington D.C. and then driving through six states — Not exactly what we think of when we hear the word “local.”

Regardless of this definition, “local foods” are in high demand despite a higher price point (compared to conventional produce options in national grocers) and a slightly more tedious sourcing process for suppliers and stores. Cowen and Company reported that 43% of the 1,000 surveyed participants would purchase food with a “locally sourced” label beating the 19% who would purchase food with an “organic” label. Sales of local food increased as much as $6.7 billion in just six short years and in the midst of 2015, local food sales are as high as $11.7 billion and growing. This dramatic economic shift has taken local foods from a niche market to a fully integrated commodity making it vital for retailers and restaurants a like to hop on the bandwagon.

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Grocery stores across the country are featuring a broader selection of locally sourced goods than ever before and people are loving it. Whole Foods, Kroger, and Safeway go so far as to call out local products on shelf by featuring little cards or short bios next to the local product so shoppers can get their food’s full story. Smaller grocers will provide a short story or give local brands the opportunity to come into the store and sample their product. Some stores even go the extra mile offering consumers the opportunity to sign up for local co-ops and food shares. Small initiatives like these go a long way with mainstream consumers and recent reports suggest that some consumers determine where they grocery shop based off their selection of local provisions.

Fortune Magazine mentions that, “Geography aside, most shoppers associate “locally-grown” with small, or maybe midsize farms. Isn’t that why Walmart and other stores feature photos of local farmers in their stores, not, say, executives of Dole?” Regardless of these misrepresentations, many feel that the local movement is benefitting many small and midsize farms and consumers are buying foods grown closer to where they live.

Because local sourcing has become a growing concern for many consumers, it’s important to educate them on the widespread definition of “local.” And although they may consider themselves a “locavore,” unless they are shopping directly at the farm or through a CSA, there is no guarantee that they’re standing behind the values of someone who truly values locally sourced food.

One thing for sure is that this movement has been powerful for the food landscape as a whole because people are attracted to the tale of community that is told through their food, connecting them to people nearby, and to the land.