Two recent studies conducted by the University of Florida show vastly different consumer attitudes toward locally grown produce.
Regardless of the outcomes, authors of both reports say demand for locally grown produce can only grow, and educating everybody from producers to consumers will be key to expanding those markets.
“Both [growers and consumers] really thought there was a need to educate consumers about food in general, but especially local food,” says Rachel Divine De Jesus, a research coordinator with UF’s Public Issues Education Center.
Producers need to share their stories more with consumers, she says. In addition, producers need to take advantage of consumers’ desires to learn about how to prepare food, about the people behind the food and what it means to be connected to local foods.
De Jesus’ comments came during a March webinar held by the PIE Center that presented findings of the two economic studies.
Both De Jesus’ work and that of colleague Alan Hodges are part of a larger project that involves consumer preferences about local food, says Tracy Irani, a UF professor of agricultural education and communication and PIE Center development director.
One-fifth of food purchases are local
Alan Hodges, a UF Extension scientist in the Food & Resource Economics Department, along with Tom Stevens, a post-doctoral associate, mailed out 7,500 surveys to randomly selected state residents during the 2012 summer. They received 1,600 responses for about a 21 percent response rate – considered very good for a survey.
Although respondents were allowed to use their own definition of local, Hodges says the most common one, with a nearly 29 percent response, was product grown within a 100-mile radius of shoppers’ homes.
Another 27 percent considered local as anything grown within Florida.
These differ from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s definition of local as produce grown within a 275-mile radius.
About two-thirds of those surveyed say they prefer to purchase locally grown produce at least occasionally. Their favorite shopping venues for local produce are farmers markets, 62 percent; retail grocers, 53 percent, restaurants, 28 percent; and directly from producers, 4 percent.
When asked why they sought locally produced items, respondents say freshness was most important, followed by food safety, nutrition, price and food security.
Respondents also were asked about factors that limited their local purchases, to which they answered high prices, unavailable at certain times of the year, limited selection and not knowing whether they were truly local as labeled.
“We need to have better food labeling as far as origin,” Hodges says. “There’s just a lot of confusion on the part of the consumer on what’s local and what does local mean.”
Based on the responses, Hodges and Stevens used an economic model to project the financial impact of local purchases.
Altogether, it amounted to $8.31 billion annually, with retail grocers accounting for about $6 billion of that.
“This was one of the surprising findings,” he says of the retailers.
Local foods represented about 19 percent of the total food purchases for at-home consumption, or about $1,114 worth per Florida household annually. Surveys in other states have found about 5 percent of consumers buy local.
A direct-to-consumers perspective
The second study involved 10 focus groups totaling 93 adult consumers and six focus groups totaling 65 small-scale producers. It was part of an effort to assess specialty crop producers’ attitudes about the Florida MarketMaker program, which connects produce buyers and sellers.
Most of the producers were involved in direct-to-consumer sales, such as through farmers’ markets and farm stands.
Both sectors agree that they valued the social interactions created by buying local, De Jesus says.
Consumers, for example, say they like to learn from farmers how food is grown and learn of new uses for produce items. Producers say they like being able to hand out samples and recipes to consumers.
But the groups also disagreed on several points.
Members of the consumer focus groups, for example, say they found local foods almost non-existent and consisting of mostly trendy items. As a result, they aren’t making much effort to buy local.
The results from both studies highlight opportunities for a Fresh From Florida brand that would help alert consumers to locally grown produce, De Jesus says.
Learn more about how some companies are promoting Fresh From Florida by visiting our WEB EXTRA page.