11:46am

Wed April 30, 2014
The Local Food Challenge

For Local Food Movement, All Signs Point To Higher Sales

Local food is slowly becoming a not so niche market. Six years ago, USDA put the size of the local food sector at $4.8 billion.
Credit Matt Hannon / Flickr

When the U.S. Department of Agriculture releases detailed data from the 2012 Census of Agriculture in May, the numbers should illuminate all sorts of details about the country’s farmers. And for those involved in local food initiatives, the data may finally make it possible to update the statistics on the size and scope of their successes.

In 2008, USDA calculated the size of the local food sector, in aggregate, at $4.8 billion. Since then, many things have changed, which largely point to growth in local food sales:

  • The number of food hubs — entities that connect regional growers with area buyers, sometimes also providing storage, distribution and minimal processing — has risen by 65 percent since 2009. On average, each food hub supports 11 full time, three part-time year-round and five seasonal jobs, according to a 2013 national survey [.pdf] conducted by Michigan State University. It also found the average revenue for food hubs in 2012 reached $3.2 million.
  • School districts nationwide reported spending a total of $355 million on local food in the 2011-2012 school year and 56 percent of the districts told the USDA they planned to buy more local food in the future.
  • The number of farmers markets has grown from 4,685 in 2008 to 8,144 in 2013.
  • In a national survey, consumer research firm the Hartman Group found consumers listed “locally grown or produced” as the fourth most important factor influencing their buying of food and beverages (behind “good for my heart,” “minimally processed” and “that contain only ingredients I recognize”).
  • The Hartman Group also found that the number of shoppers who said they look for locally grown or produced food and beverages rose from 13 percent in 2007 to 20 percent in 2010 and 25 percent in 2013.

David Wright, senior marketing manager at the Hartman Group, said that although “local” means different things to different people, in general, the trend speaks to a boarder desire for fresh food from known sources.

“The local part,” Wright said, “it’s not just a pragmatic or literal definition of local. There’s all these other aspects that have to do with people getting much more interested and involved in how something is made, where it comes from, who made it.”

And, he said, shoppers are increasingly conscientious about the impact their spending has on their own communities.

“They understand more these days than even five years ago that buying local foods helps support local economies,” Wright said.

The expansion of food hubs and institutional buying may represent a maturation of the local food movement — expanding it from small farms catering to community supported agriculture (CSA), in which subscribers pay in advance for a regular delivery of seasonal produce, and farmers markets to larger operations that may have whole greenhouses or high tunnels dedicated to tomatoes, herbs, squash or other products grown specifically for a certain large buyer or for a food hub.

While the efforts can be hyper-local, the support extends all the way up through the federal government.

“We’re encouraging schools across the country to do more of what we call farm to school,” said Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.

He said that’s because it usually means kids get fresher food, which they are more likely to try, and it also keeps purchasing dollars in the local economy. Concannon said the emphasis on some local acquisition won’t have a negative impact on large suppliers.

“The schools are increasingly doing some of their purchasing locally,” he said, “but still, they would do the bulk of their purchasing in traditional ways.”

There’s room in the marketplace for all sizes and shapes of farms. There’s no indication that CSAs or farmers markets are in any danger of slowing their growth even as demand for larger quantities of local produce increases.

In Cedar Falls, Iowa, Rachel Wobeter, the local food program manager at the University of Northern Iowa, organized a food fair this spring. She welcomed a half-dozen area CSA farms to introduce themselves to prospective new subscribers.

“We want everybody to learn about local food,” Wobeter said. “If you can figure out how to get food locally, and especially if you start now by supporting those [CSA] farmers, they’re going to be able to keep getting stronger and stronger and we’ll have more farmers in our region and we’ll have more access to food.”

It may seem an ironic aspiration in a region that’s known for growing food for the world. Wobeter doesn’t shy from that. She says changes in agriculture have led many Corn Belt residents far from their food sources.

“We’ve had several generations who didn’t grow up cooking and didn’t grow up gardening,” Wobeter said.

Local food movements may introduce, or re-introduce, many Americans to some of the basics about where food comes from and who is growing it.

And soon, we may have the numbers to reflect where this movement stands today.