One hundred years ago, nearly half of Americans lived on farms, and most of the food bought and eaten was produced locally. For many foods, availability was dictated by the growing season. Today, only about one percent of Americans live on working farms, and food routinely travels many miles before it reaches our local markets.
Consumer demand for local food has skyrocketed over the last few years, according to Dr. Pam Duitsman, a nutrition and health specialist with University of Missouri Extension.
“A variety of studies have looked into the reasons for the growing demand for local foods,” Duitsman said. “The studies have found the primary things driving demand for local food are: quality and freshness, support for the local economy, nutritional value, knowledge of where the food came from and the growing methods, effects on the environment, and support for local farmers.”
Many shoppers also say the taste of local food is preferred and that the food is fresher, and often has been allowed to ripen fully prior to harvesting.
“While local products generally have a higher cost, studies have shown that quality, nutrition, and environmental concerns increase the consumer’s willingness to pay,” Duitsman said.
The National Restaurant Association, after surveying 1,300 top chefs, reported that the top trends for 2014 focus on local sourcing of food, environmental sustainability and nutrition.
“The association noted that this trend is more than a temporary fad –increasingly our society is shifting toward a demand for locally grown food,” Duitsman said.
Government and non-profit groups, including food assistance programs, have recognized the demand for local food and are increasing their support. For instance, USDA is providing education and grant funds for communities in finding ways to support farm-to-institution procurement of local foods.
This can sometimes be a challenge, since local production may not be able to supply large markets like hospital systems, schools, grocers, and large businesses that may prefer to purchase local food. USDA and other government groups are also interested in policies that will promote local food markets, provide incentives for low-income consumers, and help communities form local Food Policy Councils – which provide forums for interested community partners.
LOCAL FOOD SYSTEMS
Research indicates that thriving local food systems help to improve the quality of food, and also help provide sufficient access to healthy food for those whose food dollar is stretched.
“One of the most beneficial aspects of the local food movement is that it allows us to develop a greater connection to our food, and to the people who raise and grow it,” Duitsman said. “We benefit from knowing what we are eating and where it came from. It is also good to choose whole food rather than what comes in a box. This process supports social, psychological and physically healthy behaviors for many people.”
Many groups in Missouri communities are cropping up to build community and school gardens. A community garden is at Loretto House in Houston. The Houston Farmers Market operates on Fridays at the Lone Star Plaza in Houston and is set to expand to Tuesdays. A local group, Downtown Houston Inc., has secured grant funding for refrigeration equipment at an annex to the Lone Star Plaza. It also has state tax credits available to help with the work required on the building.
New blinds will be installed on the east end of the copper canopy at the plaza.
Farmers markets are multiplying, and CSA’s (community supported agriculture organizations) are increasing. In 1986, there were two CSA operations in the United States. In 2007, this number was closer to 12,000, according to USDA. Tens of thousands of families now purchase food through CSAs.
“If you are interested in becoming involved in the local food movement, check out your local farmer’s markets, and investigate what CSA’s might be operating near you,” Duitsman said. “Plant a garden, or get involved in a school or community garden. These projects may be worthwhile to you as an individual and provide benefits to the community where you live.”