Research has shown that more than half of shoppers who come in to fill a prescription will also buy related food products in the same trip. For instance, while picking up heart medicine, they buy a quart of low-fat milk. More affluent elderly shoppers, coupled with increased prescribing and awareness about preventable chronic disease, presents opportunities for the supermarket as "wellness center" to cross-sell wellness-related items. And to make the picture even better, when asked by the International Food Information Council to name the foods they thought offered health benefits beyond nutrition, 1,000 consumers didn't leap to the obscure. Instead, they named the basics found on your aisles: Fruits and vegetables; fish, fish oil, seafood; milk and dairy; whole grains, oats, oat bran and oatmeal; fiber; green tea; meat, red meat and chicken; water; herbs and spices; and nuts.
So why not take the opportunity to more obviously connect the dots?
A program in seven states throughout the United States and the District of Columbia has attempted a novel effort to do just that, by working with local health clinics to "prescribe" fruits and vegetables to patients suffering chronic disease--typically diabetes related to obesity or unhealthy eating habits. Health clinics and farmers markets work together to enroll overweight and obese children in the program. During each monthly visit with a health-care provider, the participant gets a "prescription" for $1 per day per family member, which can only be redeemed for locally grown produce at the partnering farmers market.
For the 2012 program, the most recent results available, follow up surveys showed:
Although the Wholesome Wave program was intended to promote better access to Farmers Markets, which gives it a political mission, an independent community supermarket could learn much about adopting the concept into its own marketing program. Lessons learned:
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Farm-to-consumer marketing programs like the Nebraska Department of Agriculture’s Buy Fresh Buy Local Nebraska and USDA's Know Your Farmer Know Your Food are founded on the premise that increasing the number of food shoppers who buy directly from farmers helps the economic viability of small farms. "Whether consumers are purchasing tomatoes at a local farmers' market or picking some apples at a roadside stand, they are contributing back to their local economy," said Casey Foster, ag promotion coordinator with the state agriculture department.
But you may be surprised to find that cherished assumption has little scientific backing.
Ag Economics researchers from Louisiana will publish a study in an upcoming issue of the journal Agricultural Economics challenging the widely held notion that encouraging the food chain to cut out the supermarket middleman makes for healthier economics for farmers. In contrast to the “plethora” of journal articles studying the consumer at direct outlets like farmers markets, the researchers say, research is almost nonexistent about the behavior of the farmers themselves and how direct marketing affects their farm business income.
Specifically, no previous studies the Louisiana team uncovered focused on how farmers’ management and marketing skills affect their decisions to use either roadside stands, or on-farm stores, farmer’s markets or community supported agriculture programs, vs. less-direct markets like direct sales to local grocers, regional distributors and state branding programs, or some combination of the two. None of the studies they reviewed have examined the impact of marketing and management skills on the financial performance of the farmers’ business when they market through such non-conventional channels.
So the Louisiana researchers pulled data from the nationwide 2008 Agricultural Resource Management Survey collected by the Economic Research Service and National Agricultural Statistics Service of USDA. After excluding data for farms organized as non-family corporations or cooperatives and farms run by hired managers, their results found:
"Nebraskans spend $4.4 billion on food each year. Yet only 10 percent stays in our state," laments Nebraska's agrarian populists at the Center for Rural Affairs. "Shouldn’t we expect most of the food we purchase to come from our state?"
Consternation over the excessive "food miles" your products travel in order to get from the farm field to your store have led those like the Center's authors to argue to consumers and regulators that food systems can only be sustainable and socially just if they originate within a set number of miles. But one vexing problem remains: How exactly to define the vague and soft term "local."
"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" the Center's authors have written, "have no precise definitions, nor is it legally defined in the way that legislation has defined 'organic.' Some consider 'local' to describe food from a 50-mile or 100-mile distance from where it is sold. Others say a one-hour drive from the market or other place where sold. Thus, it is important to define what is meant by 'local' when using the term in food marketing or sales."
With so much confusion over a basic definition, what's a local-centric grocer to do?
Ignore it. Here's why.
Several interesting articles from one scholarly journal have recently attempted to get their hands around the meaning from both an academic's and a consumer's point of view. Some valuable lessons can be taken for the grocer interested in appealing to that class of shoppers:
What does that all mean to grocers looking for opportunity in the local food department?
In this broader sense, "local" is a double-edged sword for locally owned, community grocers. You can't fake the authenticity consumers are longing for when they buy local. So the fact that 90 percent of locally sourced food is originating with farms grossing more than a quarter million dollars annually puts grocers riding that train at risk of appearing to be inauthentic. On the other hand, if consumers are looking for a means to stay rooted in time and place via a sense of community, few retailers are in better position to lead that than the community focused grocer.
As this essay explains, if true, then the "food" portion of the "local food" movement may be a case of the marketing tail wagging the dog. Grocers who see locally sourced food as only a small part of fulfilling their commitment to the community, through community relations, employee relations and true contributions, will put themselves in the lead in capturing the loyalty of those local-focused consumers, regardless of how many miles the food they offer travels to get to them.
Dick Raymond, Nebraska’s Chief Medical Officer from 1999 through 2005 and USDA Undersecretary for Food Safety under George Bush, took note of five common perceptions about food-animal production and the possible effect on human health at a recent symposium on antibiotic issues, sponsored by the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, in Kansas City. The reality, according to the Loup City native, falls far from the perception:
Reality: Media hits regarding food-borne illness outbreaks have been up 150 percent in the last decade; media hits for food recalls--driven by the likes of Peanut Corp. of America, Wright Egg Farms and Jensen Family Farms--have risen 250 percent in that same time period. But what has the actual rate of foodborne illness done in that same time period? It has fallen by 29 percent. “Food safety in this country is the best it has ever been, and part of that is because of modern animal husbandry practices and food safety technologies,” Raymond argues.
Reality: Driven by criticism such as the highly visible Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production, the average shopper has been skillfully led to the conclusion that today’s intensive, indoor animal-raising system creates a threat of increased risk of food-borne illness—a threat that must be staved off by frequent use of antibiotics to control infections. But the important back story those like Pew ignore is the food-protection success story that technology brought along with the American farmers’ move to intensive production, including:
As those technological improvements benefited the farmer’s productivity, according to Raymond, the real value of intensive, confined animal feeding is the food-safety improvements that resulted:
Reality: For those opposed to the Food and Drug Administration-approved use of antibiotics for disease prevention and control in animals raised for food, Raymond counters, he points to “hundreds of examples” of how antibiotics are used in human medicine for these purposes, including
The medical literature is filled with examples of such preventive use of antibiotics in human medicine. Why would some people suggest animals don’t deserve the same protection from a known risk? Raymond asks. Biological tools like antibiotics help keep animals healthier by preventing or controlling disease as well as treating actual disease. This is not only good for growth and production but also a humane practice that prevents diseases that could wipe out an entire flock or herd.
Reality: Farmer Goes to Market has previously vetted this questionable claim, which Raymond notes is routinely repeated by members of Congress, The Pew Charitable Trust, Consumers Union and the media. The reality is that figure grossly overstates the consumption of antibiotics that are important to human medicine because it treats all antibiotics as equal. They aren’t. Of the numbers reported by FDA annually as sold for animal use (food and pets), more than 40 percent are in the tetracycline class. Tetracyclines are decades-old antibiotics that today are of very limited use in human medicine, with many better choices available. At the same time, the antibiotic classes that are considered critically important to human medicine—the flouroquinolones and cephalosporins—represent only 0.1 percent and 0.2 percent of the antibiotics FDA says is sold for animal use.
Reality: This misperception arises because activist groups and the media mix their metaphors when it comes to the reality of how and why some germs develop the ability to resist certain antibiotics. Yes, the retail chicken and ground turkey meat monitoring samples collected by the federal government’s National Antibiotics Resistance Monitoring System reported in February found traces of Salmonella that were resistant to several antibiotics, Raymond concedes. However, the four most common antibiotics that Salmonella showed resistance to were tetracycline, streptomycin, sulfisoxazole and penicillin. None of those four drugs would be used to treat a Salmonella infection in a person. Meanwhile, none of the Salmonella found on meat samples were resistant to the particular class of antibiotics known as flouroquinolones, which is the first choice antibiotic in human Salmonella cases. In addition, only 4.3 percent and 0.5 percent of the Campylobacter found on the meat samples were resistant to the macrolide class of antibiotics. Macrolides are the drug of choice doctors would use to treat human Campylobacter cases. FDA responded to criticism of antibiotic policy based on the report by the Environmental Working Group by saying “First-line treatments for all four bacteria that we track are still effective…. We believe EWG is inaccurate and alarmist to define bacteria resistance to one, or even a few, antimicrobials as ‘superbugs’ if these bacateria are treatable by other commonly used antibiotics.” Superbugs are real, Raymond says, but they are not food-borne and they are a direct use of humans using and misusing antibiotics, not farmers. The Infectious Disease Society of America recognizes that the list of true superbugs had no food-borne or animal connections.
When the U.S. Department of Agriculture urged shoppers to help celebrate National Farmers Market Week in late August by visiting one of more than 8,000 local farmers markets in the nation, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack called them "a critical part of our nation's food system." In promoting the government's efforts to further such direct-to-shopper local and regional markets, Vilsack said farmers markets are needed to "help fill a growing consumer demand for fresh, healthy foods."
USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said, "Due to consumer demand for local food we are seeing an increase in the diversity of market offerings, and more participation from small businesses and farms. This year we are focusing on the sustainability and maturity of farmers markets- keeping new and old markets thriving and improving. Farmers markets around the country continue to be popular social events for families and communities."
But are they really filling the holes supermarkets are leaving in the demand for healthier food, as USDA implies? Here's what one recent study, published in October's American Journal of Agricultural Economics, found:
Washington State economics professors Jeremy Sage and Vicki McCracken, along with human development research associate Rayna Sage, used mapping software to plot the location of both supermarkets and farmers markets in that state, and then attempted to evaluate whether the present distribution of farmers’ markets fills in holes where supermarkets have left so-called food deserts--areas where the poor presumedly don't have access to a supermarket within a reasonable distance. Or, the Washington State researchers asked, do farmers markets simply duplicate and expand the food choices more traditional retail establishments already offer?
After comparing the presence and relative proximity of supermarkets and farmers markets in Washington's urban centers, along with the income level and demographics of the neighboring populations, the economists noted these results: