EXPERT COLUMN: Defining Local Foods Will Impact Success

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EXPERT COLUMN: Defining Local Foods Will Impact Success

By Mark Lang - 02/21/2014

Locally sourced and locally produced foods are trends beginning to capture as much attention from consumers and the industry as natural & organic.

Consumers increasingly seek these products from green markets, CSAs and now their traditional food retailers. Marketers are expanding product offerings and merchandising, establishing relationships with new local suppliers, and communicating their progress with customers.

In spite of this interest and activity, local foods are not consistently defined and understood across the industry, government and consumers. The most prevalent definitions focus on distance from source to point-of-sale based on the desire to reduce food miles and their impact on the natural environment.

The distance definition is not clear though; depending on who you talk to, it could be based on miles, time or political borders. For example, the federal government defines local products as being sourced within 400 miles, Whole Foods as being within seven hour’s drive time, and Walmart as being from within the same state. Many of these and other companies’ definitions are also quickly evolving.

What is even more interesting is what local foods can mean to different people. In reviewing recent articles, reports and studies, you can learn that, beyond distance, consumers may consider such varied dimensions as scale of producer, family ownership, the local economy and artisan production methods.

As someone who may likely be involved in marketing local foods, what would you write down as your definition? How does that compare to how your customer defines local foods? And what do you think consumers’ expectations are from companies marketing and merchandising local foods? Given the confusion around just the definition, these are pretty interesting and important questions - especially if you plan to expand activity and investment in this area.

To answer these questions, in the Fall of 2013, the Institute of Food Products Marketing fielded a survey of 300 adult shoppers across the United States. We learned that consumers define local foods as coming from a family-owned, small or independent business that is close to their home and part of their community. When they think of distance, it is in terms of miles, not time. In fact, the average distance considered to be local is just over 100 miles with more than 50 percent of consumers viewing local as from within their state.

It was interesting to find that locally sourced or produced foods are equally important to shoppers as natural and organic, sustainability and seasonal products. We found that consumers expect local products to first be fresher, better-tasting and of higher quality, and then to provide other benefits such as supporting the local economy and knowing who and where their food comes from. It is interesting that the impact of food miles on the natural environment is one of the lowest-ranked dimensions of local foods.

Shoppers expect to find local foods in the produce department, but also in the dairy, bakery/deli and meat departments. Shoppers perceive farmers/green markets as doing the best job of providing a good selection of local foods with local independent supermarkets, natural food stores, and Whole Foods being the next best.

It is important to take away from this research that local foods are more than produce food miles to consumers and may be part of an evolving and expanding redefinition of quality. Consumers may be displaying a new desire to have a more personal connection and understanding regarding where and who their food comes from. This understanding expands the opportunities for food marketers to develop and present relevant local food offerings to their customers.

Mark Lang is a professor of Food Marketing at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia and co-director of the Institute of Food Products Marketing. He can be reached at [email protected].