one who eats foods grown locally whenever possible
We’re all the descendants of locavores.
They didn’t really have a choice. That is, until the second half of the 20th century, most food production was local, limited by available transportation infrastructure and agricultural technology (see page one here). The population of locavores gradually declined as more and more food choices became available, bringing year-round availability of all kinds of products, both the familiar and the exotic.
But the 20th century is so 15 years ago. In the 21st century, locavorism is resurging. Why the recent resurgence after such a long, steady decline? What’s changed?
There are many reasons locavorism could be making a comeback. As the trend of consumers becoming home gourmets grows, the origin of where our food comes from might play a more central role in how we choose what we eat. Perhaps with today’s high healthcare costs and increased attention on wellness and preventative medicine, consumers are increasingly viewing food as intrinsically linked with health. Or maybe, with our increasing awareness of climate change and other environmental problems, consumers are taking individual action to make a difference.
As we explored the world of local food, we wanted to learn more about the reasoning behind the food choices consumers make. While quantitative research lets us know a trend is occurring, it doesn’t give us a sense of causality. At Continuum, we turn to our tried-and-true methodology of ethnographic research. We spoke with eight, self-identified, New England “locavores,” purposely not defining what local meant. By treating each person as a rich data set, we uncovered big opportunities that previously have been overlooked. We were better able to understand how to match consumer needs, pain points, and desires. It allowed us to see the motivations and logic behind how people chose the food they eat. Only through qualitative research were we able to dive deeply enough to understand “why.”
In doing so, we hope to help consumers better achieve their own personal desires when it comes to their food choices.
What We Found
The word “local” means different things to different people in different places. However, regardless of definition, consumers shared three main reasons they seek local food.
It Tastes Better
Unsurprisingly, this is a main reason consumers seek local. Many feel local produce is hands-down fresher, higher-quality, and better-tasting. The reasoning ranges from emotional (“it looks prettier”) to rational (“the sooner between picking and eating, it tastes better”).
Supporting My Community
A common thread with the people we spoke with is the desire to support the local community. By purchasing food from local businesses within their town or region, they feel their money will stay within the ecosystem of their local economy. Additionally, to many consumers, the feeling that “their business matters” strikes a major chord. Knowing the owner or seller gave consumers someone to talk with, creating a sense of trust.
Better for My Health
Many consumers feel that local produce is better than non-local options for their health and wellbeing. When probed, we uncovered multiple different reasons for why they believe this; some rely on intuition, with one interviewee proclaiming “I don’t have any scientific proof on any of these thoughts, but I feel that…,” while others may be misinformed, such as thinking “organic means no pesticides.”
Conspicuously absent in the responses was any mention of environmental benefits, which some consumers identified as a side benefit at best: “I acknowledge the sustainability benefits, but that’s not important to me.” This is consistent with other findings we’ve had regarding consumers and sustainability. As Principal Kristin Heist has said, don’t assume “that people are going to choose a product… or choose to pay more for it because it’s good for the environment. You need to figure out what is that personal motivation that is going to make them say, ‘You know what? This is right for me, this is right for my family,’ and that’s what you need to design for.” Besides, the environmental benefits of eating locally are unclear (on the inefficiency of local food production; on how dietary choices and reduction of food waste are more important for reducing impact than reducing food-miles).
Underlying Goals and Motivations
“Better for My Health” is, by far, the most complex and confusing reason consumers choose local. However, by understanding why consumers feel that local is better for their health, we found an opportunity to help them achieve their food goals that they currently might not be achieving. Our consumers were overwhelmed by the vast amount of conflicting information readily available regarding food: what is healthy or unhealthy to eat, what labels to look for or avoid, what those labels even mean, and so on. The people we spoke with were confused by the various terms—”I look at packaging but I get bombarded. I try to look but urgency wins over checking”—to the point that they had to find shortcuts to judge what is healthy. Some methods we heard were looking for items with the fewest ingredients that were all pronounceable (“I like to avoid things I can’t pronounce, with as few ingredients as possible,”) or specific labels: “I still go for the organic label. Whether it is best or not, I try.” This sea of information is hard to navigate, even if you have the time and mental energy to devote to interpreting endless research articles, press releases, and blogs; we know first-hand—we read our eyeballs out for this article!
For many, local is more than just a distance to their house. Many locavores, upon hearing the term local, associate it with other labels, such as organic, non-GMO, no pesticides, etc. “I assume food at the farmer’s market is organic,” said a respondent, while another stated: “The farmer’s market produce is more natural.” Local wasn’t the only term misunderstood by consumers. Assumptions about what labels and terms meant were made across the board. Knowing that people are seeking specific traits from their foods, we decided to lay out the definitions of certain terminology, along with misconceptions we heard, as well as the best way to achieve what consumers might be looking for.
The Next Best Thing
This confusion leads to many consumers not knowing who or what to trust. In an ideal world, many consumers we spoke with would have liked to grow their own food so that they knew exactly what they were getting, but due do their busy lives and the volume of food needed, it felt unrealistic: “It’s a romantic idea to me, but it will never happen. I’m too busy.” To them, local was the next best thing—something they can trust that they can realistically fit into their lives. We learned that trust exists for two major reasons.
My Business Matters
When locavores bought from a local farmer, they felt their business mattered. To them, large corporations didn’t care about their business. “I like buying from an identifiable person, not a faceless corporation,” said one respondent. “They are likely to listen. I’m one of a thousand consumers, not one in a million.” The local vendor would ensure what is sold to them is a high quality product—because if it isn’t, locavores will take their business elsewhere.
Knows Produce Best
A benefit to buying local is being able to directly speak with growers. Many locavores mentioned how they had become friendly with the vendors and farmers selling them food. As one interviewee put it, “I didn’t expect to become friends with farmers.” By having those conversations, they learned about how their food is being grown as well as what to look for this harvest.
For consumers, “local” has become a proxy for food decision-making. Locavores trust that the person growing and selling their food, a person they can talk to, has their best interest at heart. However, it became clear many consumers made assumptions about how their local food was grown. “I trust that the farmers are growing without pesticides, organically,” said one.
The Locavore’s Dilemma
While many consumers expressed a desire to commit more fully to the locavore lifestyle, few maintained it consistently or year-round because of two significant challenges:
“It would be a challenge to only eat locally. I try and be realistic about my time.”
For many consumers, local meant not only spending more time to acquire their groceries, but also being on a more restrictive schedule. Many local farms only sell specific items, requiring multiple trips to multiple places, noting “it adds a few extra hours per week shopping for food.” At farmer’s markets that have multiple stands to ease completing the shopping list, there are limited hours for consumers to shop. One interviewee complained “the farmer’s market is only open on Saturday mornings and I’m not a morning person.” The convenience of a grocery store, open all days of the week for longer hours, is not there.
Completing the List
“They just have produce and cheese. Windex won’t be there.”
Along with needing to spend more time shopping, many noted that if they attempted to buy everything local, their shopping list would be incomplete. The traditional grocery store has many of the staples (salt, flour, etc.) needed for the home and pantry and consumers can’t find at local farms or farmer’s markets.
“I can’t get strawberries in December.”
When speaking with consumers about the challenges of being locavores, a major pain point felt was winter. An aspect of local that consumers love is the ability of eat fresh, delicious in-season food. However, on the flip side, winter feels as though sacrifices need to be made given the limited and less appealing options. As one consumer put it, “in the summer, it’s a lot more fun to eat.”
People aren’t interested in eating local because it’s local—locavores have underlying motivations around health, community, and taste that influence food choices, and local is a shorthand that is perceived to align with those motivations. For most locavores, despite the significance attributed to local food in their diet, it comprises only a small portion of their overall food consumption that varies due to the challenges of schedules and seasonality. By understanding these reasons behind the rising interest in local food choices and the challenges consumers face, growers and sellers have an opportunity to increase the value of their offerings to their customers by better meeting customer needs, addressing pain points, and—most importantly—building trust.