7. What's local? What's it worth?

Local foods focus group

Facilitator Stephen Mainzer and his note-taker Danielle Oprean (seated on his left).
Mainzer is introducing himself to his focus group while Oprean takes notes.


Research looks at consumer perceptions of local food

The local food movement has been growing and gaining attention as a result of consumers’ interest in more sustainable agriculture and greater awareness of the environmental cost of shipping food hundreds of miles. Home gardens, farmers’ markets, co-ops, and consumer-supported agriculture groups are all manifestations of the trend. But just what does “local food” mean and how much are consumers willing to pay for it?

For the class Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment (HDNRE 574) geography graduate student Carolyn Fish and fellow research team members Austin Barrett, Lauren Abbott, Sarah Eissler, Lacey Goldberg, Stephen Mainzer, and Max Olsen conducted a study to try to understand what people who live in State College, Pennsylvania, mean when they say “local foods,” and how much they would be willing to pay for access through a local food co-op.

The Friends & Farmers co-operative emerged in 2013 from a potluck dinner held by the Spring Creek Homesteading organization. Friends & Farmers is a business focused on reinvesting in the community and growing the local food economy. Now its problem is stagnation in the number of enrollments far below the base needed to sustain a local store, although a preliminary market analysis had shown that there were more than enough consumers to support a co-operative in the State College area, Mainzer explained.

“After we met with them to understand their needs. We decided that working with Friends & Farmers was an opportunity to conduct rigorous research while contributing in meaningful and immediately applicable way to the community,” Fish said.

The group organized a dinner and focus group event held in November 2014 at the State College High School South Building, making use of the cafeteria and three classrooms. The dinner was catered by Harrison’s Wine Grill and Catering, in part, due to their breadth of locally sourced foods, “but we did not promote the fact that Harrison’s menu was locally sourced as that may provide a bias in our study,” Fish noted.

The research was funded by the Hamer Center for Community Design; the Department of Landscape Architecture; the Department of Geography’s Peter R. Gould Center for Geography Education and Outreach; the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Management; and the Department of Agricultural Economics, Sociology, and Education.

“We were surprised at how passionate the State College community is about local foods. The dinner event was attended by more than 70 participants, all of whom had something valuable to contribute to the dialogue. In addition, we’ve been amazed at how complex the perceptions of a simple phrase like ‘local food’ can be.

While we are still analyzing, the data indicate not everyone shares the same definition of ‘local’ or places the same amount of value on purchasing local,” said members of the research team.

Based on the demographic data collected, team members described the sample as predominantly female, middle-aged, well educated, and liberal in their political views, with variation in employment and income, which could be accounted for by the presence of students, working professionals, and retirees within the sample. Residency within respondents’ current neighborhoods can be described as temporary and transient. Respondents primarily live in households with two adults, and few live with individuals under the age of 18.

“In general, consumers feel good about buying what they perceive as local food, even though there is no single definition,” Fish noted. “Our literature review showed that consumers perceive that local food is more authentic, higher quality, fresher, more nutritious, tasty, safe, and socially and environmentally responsible. In addition, consumers believe that when they buy locally they are supporting local farmers and the local economy. On the other hand, there are many perceived barriers such as inconvenience, lack of seasonal availability, and higher costs.”

“The preliminary findings of our local study mirror the wider trends,” Abbott said. “There is an split between boosters and barriers to local foods in general. There is also a split between the positive and negative aspects of accessing local foods. High costs and the seasonality of local food in central Pennsylvania were mentioned as major barriers. Additionally, participants tended to associate local foods with food that is organic, environmentally friendly, and better for their health.”

Regarding the specific research questions, “First, it was clear that different people spatially define ‘local’ in different ways and for different foods,” Fish explained, adding, “Second, early results suggest that willingness-to-pay for local foods, through the purchase of a lifetime membership to a co-op specializing in local foods, is lower than the price point of a membership in our exemplar, the Friends & Farmers co-op. Further, the value of membership is significantly derived from access to the store; benefits of co-ownership were less important.”

Immediate next steps for the research team are to publish a monograph on the Hamer Center’s website, conduct further analysis of the data, and share the findings with Friends & Farmers.

Understanding proximity and location in relation to the natural resources around us is central to geography, Fish noted. “In our focus groups and follow-up survey we specifically asked people about distance and location to local foods and we were amazed by the diverse opinions about the locality of local foods. While the definition might be diverse, the concept of locality is inherently tied to spatial and social relationships. We believe our study is the starting point for additional research understanding the geography of local foods in the area.”