Why Food is Localizing
As noted earlier, the spread of the local food movement represents changes in demand, with growing consumer interest in eating locally, and changes in supply, as CFEs expand or form to take advantage of shifting consumer demand. Price is a factor, of course, and as more CFEs enter the marketplace, local food prices are trending downward. CFEs themselves are learning how to bring down their costs through greater volume, through smarter distribution techniques, through the better use of technology, and through collaboration with other CFEs. The next section of this report elaborates the learning that is occurring on the supply side of the equation.
For a moment, though, it’s worth elaborating the demand side. Consumers are not only looking for the lowest priced food but also the best value for a given price. And in many ways, consumers are finding that local food, even if it’s nominally pricier, delivers better value. Specifically, consumers are finding special value in local food in five ways:
- Better Nutrition and Health: Because many foods lose nutrients
over time, local food means quicker delivery of foodstuffs with less
loss of nutrition. Moreover, knowing a farmer or rancher tends to
enhance a consumer’s trust in the healthfulness of his or her products.
Local foods also typically involve less processing, which means fewer
chemicals and additives. Replacing processed with fresh foods, as
author Michael Pollan argues, is a powerful way to improve consumer
health and reduce the incidence of obesity and diabetes. Every
headline about a breakdown in the mainstream food system outbreaks of e
coli in hamburger meat and peanuts from distant suppliers, for example
reinforces people’s desires to re localize their purchasing to
producers they trust.
- Better Taste: To the extent that food is about taste, local food
excels. FoodRoutes Network, one of the nation’s most prominent
promoters of local food over the past decade, captures this concept in
its slogan, “Buy Fresh, Buy Local.” Local food, whether lobsters from
the coastal waters of Maine or Saska berries from Saskatchewan, shapes
local tastes, generates signature local recipes, and provides icons of
local identify and pride.
- More Civic Engagement: Anyone who has been to a farmers market,
like the Greenmarkets we studied in New York City, knows that the shopping experience is fundamentally different from that of a
supermarket. A supermarket is about finding and purchasing foods as
quickly and efficiently as possible. A farmers market is about
consumers chatting, learning from, and developing relationships with
local food producers, and about neighbors interacting with one another.
An entire sociology literature has developed suggesting that
communities characterized by local business results in greater civic
welfare, less social strife, and greater equality.
- Stronger Community Economies: Local food is a critical economic
driver for local economies. Local food businesses provide local jobs
and pay local taxes. Every loaf of bread unnecessarily imported means
the leakage of dollars outside the local economy and the loss of a
local bread business that could contribute to local prosperity. But the
case for locally owned food businesses is even more compelling, because
local businesses spend more of their money locally. Unlike outsider
owned businesses, they tend to advertise in local media, hire local
accountants and attorneys, provide top level management experience, and
reinvest profits in the community. Numerous studies have documented
that a dollar spent on a local business yields two to four times the
“economic multiplier” the underlying source of income, wealth and jobs
as an equivalent nonlocal business. Additionally, there is a growing
body of evidence that local businesses are particularly good at
attracting tourists and future entrepreneurs, promoting creative
economies, and stimulating charitable contributions.
- More Sustainability: Local food is, finally, a tool for
sustainability. Farmers are among the most important stewards of local
land. Because agriculture accounts for approximately 30% of the earth’s
land surface, environmentally sensitive production of foodstuffs is
critical to maintaining healthy habitats, air, water, soil, and
ecosystems that ultimately support healthy people. To eat sustainably
means growing and processing foodstuffs in a sustainable manner, and
doing so within a local ecosystem makes the accomplishment all the more
compelling. Any community on the planet that cannot sustainably feed
itself necessarily places burdens on the ability of other communities
to feed themselves. Put positively, business models that meet local
food needs sustainably can, if shared and multiplied globally through
studies like this one, teach communities in other parts of the world to
feed themselves sustainably. Moreover, since we know that all local
businesses, including CFEs, tend to spend their money locally, their
“inputs” travel less, use less energy, and thereby emit fewer
pollutants and less climate-disrupting carbon dioxide.
Together, these factors suggest why millions of consumers, particularly in developed countries, are turning to local food, even when the price of local food is a bit higher than nonlocal alternatives. But for the movement to spread further—to poorer residents of developed countries and to poorer countries in general—the gap between local and conventional food, where it exists, will have to become smaller. This is on the verge of happening.