Friday, August 10, 2007

Friday Feature: Food origin, buying local an emerging trend

There is an emerging consumer trend towards shoppers wanting to know the origins of the food products they buy. Where these products are grown, how they are grown, and how far they have traveled to get to the supermarket (called food miles) are among the chief concerns of a growing number of consumers.

Coupled with this emerging "food origin" trend is a growing consumer preference for wanting to "buy locally" produced and sourced food products. Driving this growing local preference primarily are concerns such as freshness, use of pesticides and preservatives in food production; environmental or green concerns, and political issues such as fair trade, wages and jobs. As a result we are seeing the beginning of a "food origin/buy local" consumer trend.

James E. McWilliams, author of the book: "A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest For Food Shaped America." offers a short and well-written piece in the Aug.6, 2007 New York Times discussing food origins, buying local and related ideas. His Times' article, "Food That Travels Well," is here:

Like most "new" or emerging trends this one really isn't new. In the days before mass marketing developed in the U.S. (about 50 years ago) buying locally and knowing the origins of ones food was rather common. Most food crops were grown locally--even in places like the east coast--processed locally, and marketed by locally-based independent or small chain grocers and other retailers.

However, with the mass marketing revolution that began in the 1950's, this practice began to change. Modern agribusiness began to make the push from primarily family farms to corporate farming. Food manufacturing companies began to source products from all over the country--and the world. Food retailing was being transformed from primarily family-owned business models to corporate chains that in many cases had their corporate headquarters located hundreds or thousands of miles away from many of their retail stores. This agricultural and food industry mass-market revolution created an abundance of food at cheap prices, and American consumers welcomed it, as did the agricultural and food industries. It is the model that remains dominant throughout the developed world today.

Beginning in the 1970's however a small segment of consumers began looking for alternatives. They wanted to be "closer" to the source of their food if you will. These consumers sought out small family farms and often purchased produce directly from the farmer. At retail, food cooperatives gained popularity, and the first modern-day farmers' markets emerged in U.S.cities and smaller communities. Independent grocers, who historically tended to buy as much produce as possible from local farmers and growers, began to experience renewed popularity from this segment of consumers do to this practice.

At about this time the natural foods industry started to bloom. Small natural foods companies sprouted up like weeds all over the U.S., producing and marketing all-natural, organic and health food products. Independent natural foods stores--following on the success of the food cooperatives--began to open up, especially on the west and east coasts of the U.S.

Additionally, small, artisan specialty foods companies began to emerge in great numbers, offering consumers locally produced produce, meats, cheeses, baked goods, gourmet grocery items and other regional goods. Further, numerous independent grocers began to sell the products of these artisan specialty producers. These local grocers saw it as both a way to differentiate their stores from the big chains and also as a way to support local food producers. These independent grocers also were responding to consumer demand and requests for these products. Since the owners of these independent markets tended to work on the store floor every day they were there to hear from their customers.

Today we are seeing this small group of consumers grow into a large enough consumer sector to make the "food origin/buy local" concept an emerging trend. This consumer demand is resulting in such things as farmer's markets being in nearly every most smaller communities--today. Many are open two and three days per week--and are busy, vibrant places. Many family farmers say they are able to make more money selling at these farmers' markets than they ever did in the past when they sold their crops to wholesalers.

Consumers love the farmers' markets, not only for the wide variety of fresh produce--often organic--available but also for the many artisan goods from small producers they can buy there: cheeses, baked goods, meats, oils and vinegars and more. Consumers also enjoy the farmers' market experience--getting to talk with the farmers who grow the food, discussing growing methods with them, and meeting and visiting with friends and strangers at the market. In other words it is 'buy local" with a social benefit.

Dr. Robert Sommer, a professor of Psychology, founder and long time Director of the the Center For Consumer Research at the University of California, Davis, has done some of the most important research and writing about the modern farmers' market movement. His book: "Farmer's Markets of America: A Renaissance" is available from See here:
The book is a great overview of the emergence of the modern-day farmers' market. Additionally, Dr. Sommer was the first academic to conduct empirical research and publish his findings in peer-reviewed journals as well as popular publications, about the economic, social and agricultural benefits of farmers' markets. Some of his research and writing can be found here:

As this "food origin/ buy local" trend starts to further emerge, a few smart retailers are capitalizing on it. For example, last month (July, 2007) Lund's Food Holdings Inc., Minneapolis, Minn., launched an "Eat Local" in-store marketing campaign in it's Lunds and Byerly's stores. The campaign is designed to highlight the retailers commitment to local farmers and to providing it's customers with the best, most fresh local produce, according to the grocer. The grocer also says it may expand this "buy local" program to meat and bakery items soon as well.

Additionally, Lund's local competitor, Cub Foods, is doing something similar in it's Minnesota stores. Cub Foods lists the country or U.S state of origin on signs for most of their fresh produce items in their produce departments. They also identify any "Minnesota grown" produce items with special stickers on the item. This article from the Aug.3, 2007 Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal discusses the programs in more detail.^1501407

Numerous other retail grocers also are promoting "food origin/ buy local." In California, Raley's Superstores, a Sacramento-based chain with three retail store banners--Raley's, Bel-Air and Nob Hill Foods--and Bristol Farms, an upscale grocer, regularly provide shoppers with signs denoting locally grown and produced food products. Both chains also frequently have local artisan food producers conduct tastings in-store. The fact that the products being sampled in the stores are of local origin is highlighted by signs in-store and often in the retailer's weekly advertising circulars.

Super-natural foods grocer Whole Foods Markets, Inc. has been--and continues to be--at the forefront of the "food origin/buy local" marketing strategy. Whole Foods labels products throughout its stores--fresh produce, meats and fresh seafood, baked goods and grocery products--with country, state and region of origin labels and signs. Each Whole Foods store has a marketing person in-store. A significant part of this persons job is to stage "local-produced" food promotions including tastings, in-store signage and event promotions. The focus of these promotions is to highlight the benefits to shoppers of buying locally sourced and produced products from these vendors. In fact it is more than a marketing strategy for Whole Foods--it has become a part of the retailer's corporate culture and merchandising philosophy.

As this "food origin/buy local" trend continues to emerge we can expect to see more retailers promoting it in their stores. Also, smaller specialty foods and natural foods manufacturers and marketers should get involved. They can stage promotions with local retailers who operate in communities near where their companies are based, and near where the ingredients in their products are grown and produced.

These manufacturers also can use the "food origin/buy local" concept as a story-line to generate press and media stories about their companies and their buy local campaigns and promotions. Another good idea is "origin" labels or stickers on products. Made in USA or made in Texas can be a powerful and inexpensive marketing tool for food producers as the "food origin/buy local" movement grows--which it will continue to do.

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