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The "Real Deal" Project to Define "Local Food"

PASA and Project Partners Complete Real Deal Project Research Phase


The Real Deal Project
While the term “local food” is commonly used, there are no consistent standards defining it, resulting in potential confusion for consumers who want to understand where their food comes from. The term “local” is often used vaguely in reference to products and businesses with inconsistent and potentially even erroneous claims, which creates risks and challenges to a fair and open marketplace.  To address this issue, and encourage more transparency in the food system, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA) is partnering with the Farmers Market Coalition, and FoodRoutes Network, LLC to develop clear definitions and evaluation processes that help farmers markets and food related businesses assess their engagement in the local food system and communicate this information to their customers.

This project, called “The Real Deal,” recognizes the important opportunities for farmers to sell products through farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA), and directly to restaurants, retail stores, and institutions.  Through direct marketing, farmers benefit from closer contact with customers and an implicit trust that products from local farms are more authentic, safer, and more sustainable than mainstream alternatives.  Over the last several decades, direct-marketing outlets like farmers markets and farm stands have provided critical platforms for local food’s recent expansion into more sophisticated marketing chains like food hubs that involve a mid-point between farmer and end consumer.  However, as new retail opportunities emerge, the lack of understanding about what qualities define “local” foods could diminish the competitive advantage for local producers by limiting consumer access to information and the ability to verify claims about farming and food handling practices.  The goal of The Real Deal is to develop tools and resources for farms, farmers markets and food related businesses who want to assess and improve their local sourcing and inform consumers about food origin.

Research Findings
From January to June 2014, the project partners conducted research, in collaboration with Crossroads Resource Center, to better understand the issues and needs of consumers, producers, farmers markets, and retailers related to defining local foods in the marketplace.  Using multiple methods including a literature review, focus groups, surveys, and in depth interviews, we investigated the following research questions:

1.)    What are current definitions of local foods used by farms, farmers markets, and food-related businesses, and how are these communicated to consumers?

2.)    What are the most important values embedded in the concept of “local food” and how can these be measured?

3.)    What is the need for and feasibility of a self-assessment tool that measures and helps to communicate a retailer’s engagement within the local food system?

We found that although local purchasing policies are generally defined by geographic proximities, physical boundaries are not necessarily the most important concern for consumers.  Consumers are most concerned with the quality, freshness, nutrition, and safety of their food, and while they associate these qualities with local food, such characteristics are not intrinsic to foods produced locally.  We also learned that consumers prefer information that empowers them to make informed choices; thus it may be most important to identify the location of the farm where food was produced, or the location of the firm where it was processed, rather than to simply label an item “local.” Importantly, the term “local” serves a proxy for an array of other concepts, including community interaction, economic development, social justice, and sustainable growing practices.  These concepts have the potential to distinguish “local” foods from conventional foods in the marketplace and offer a competitive advantage.

In large part, many consumers have already made their purchasing decisions before they leave their homes.  Therefore, customer validation and retention campaigns should ideally be implemented parallel to campaigns designed to reach people who do not seek out local products already. Crossroads Resource Center suggests that a single-focused, “buy local” campaign runs the risk of being superficial and easily muddied, whereas a multi-dimensional, values based consumer campaign held in concert with other labeling efforts may be more effective in reshaping the food and agricultural system.

Our research supports the need for a self-assessment tool and marketing templates using a variety of formats so that farmers markets and food businesses can communicate their sourcing policies and the stories of their products clearly.  Farmers markets and food related businesses would benefit from resources to evaluate and communicate their local sourcing practices in a more holistic way that speaks directly to consumer values.  Our stakeholders report that they are likely to use a self-assessment tool to evaluate their engagement in the local food system, and farmers markets in particular prefer one that uses descriptive measures and graphic representation of metrics.  Obviously, different types of businesses require different types of communication tools to reach their audiences, but all farmers markets, producers, and retailers indicated that social media and websites are the best platforms for them to communicate their self-assessment results. Stakeholders in western Pennsylvania also indicated that incorporating these new tools and resources into the Buy Fresh Buy Local ® (BFBL) chapter would both legitimize the tools and also add more credibility to the BFBL program.

The 1LOCAL Index Was Born
Learn about the 1LOCAL Index.

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