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Saturday March 24, 2018

What consumers really want from 'local'

"'Local food' or 'regional food,'" says the Lyons-based Center for Rural Affairs, "have no precise definitions....  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."

That kind of dwelling on the simple logistics of local, or "food-miles," according to authors of a recent review of the subject in the journal Agriculture and Human Values, is too narrow. Defining local as simply the number of miles food travels creates a "local trap"--a sustainability red herring that ultimately interferes with the real goals of the new food movement. Instead, according to these University of California professors, "...we need to acknowledge the complexity of the issue, cognitively and behaviorally and institutionally, and participate more in the public dialog about alternative local food to help move the discussion toward enabling change."

Is the home cooked meal over-idealized?

"Everybody knows" bringing back the home-cooked meal as an important part of the solution to American's nutrition-related health problems. Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert proclaimed the last week of October Family Dining Week in that city, citing studies showing children who eat at home try more new foods and eat better and asking families to pledge to keep their kids around the dinner table. Meanwhile, the food-focused Dining section of the New York Times, for instance, last month published its own "home-cooking manifesto," advising readers to, "Just cook. Just cook dinner. It is a habit as easy to form as a bad one, and more beneficial by far."

Not so fast there, Betty Crocker, says a trio of North Carolina sociology professors.

They argue in the Summer issue of the American Sociological Association's journal Contexts that this infatuation with the family meal is romanticized, unreal, even elitist and moralistic myth-making. It is so stressful to working mothers, particularly poor working mothers, as to be, in the words of the headline on the Slate story reporting their work, a "tyranny."

"The vision of the family meal that today’s food experts are whipping up is alluring," write sociologists Sarah Bowen, Sinikka Elliott, and Joslyn Brenton. "Most people would agree that it would be nice to slow down, eat healthfully, and enjoy a home-cooked meal. However, our research leads us to question why the frontline in reforming the food system has to be in someone’s kitchen. The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures, financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held."

The research team spent 1.5 years interviewing 150 black, white and Latina mothers, including more than 250 hours actually observing 12 working-class and poor families in their homes as they prepared and ate meals, shopped their local grocery store and carted children to medical check-ups--that is, "sitting around the kitchen table and getting a feel for these women’s lives," as the authors phrased it.

The result, they argue, is far from a call for more dinner time. U.S. mothers are buying into society's message that “home-cooked meals have become the hallmark of good mothering, stable families, and the ideal of the healthy, productive citizen.” The problem, they argue, is that most can't scrape together the time, money or capability to meet those unrealistic expectations. Torn by often unpredictable, service-industry work schedules, poor mothers often face schedule conflicts with a traditional evening meal. Even the middle-class women, they suggest, are "overwhelmed" by the competing demands on their time in trying to get dinner on the table every evening.

What's a grocer to do?

Leaving aside whether the authors' conclusions are valid based on their research, the family-meal focus still presents opportunities for grocers to present solutions:

Be the home-cooking educator. One point emerges from the Contexts study: The problem with home cooking is as often about education and capability as it is about money. "We observed homes without kitchen tables or functional appliances," the trio writes, "...lacking basic kitchen...." Similarly, they write: "And, of course, cooking isn’t just about the time it takes to prepare the meal. It also involves planning ahead to be sure the ingredients are on hand, and it means cleaning up afterwards. Samantha, a single white mother of three, was blunt when we asked her if she liked cooking. 'Not really,' she said. 'I just hate the kitchen…having to come up with a meal and put it together.... If it was up to me, I wouldn't cook.'"

Grocers, whether by themselves or in cooparation with public and private partnerships, are in a perfect position to help shoppers learn the often simple, but daunting, meal planning, pre-prep, cooking, clean-up, storage and re-use skills that have gone dormant in today's society.

Challenge the economics. The North Carolina study challenges one of the notions held dear by today's new-food-movement advocate: The mothers they interviewed who were barely paying the bills were in fact routinely cooking--not feeding their families fast food. And they reported they cooked because they perceived it as cheaper than eating out. That positive message offers opportunity for supermarkets to take back the conversation about their role in healthy, economical family meals.

Meanwhile, the middle-class women the interviewers investigated voiced another economic paradox. They, too, expressed concern about not having enough money to cook healthy home-cooked meals, but they expressed it in terms of not having the financial wherewithall to buy they foods they perceived as healthier: particularly organic and fresh produce. Issues about relative profitability of those categories for the grocer aside, middle-class mothers who feel priced out of home cooking because they "can only afford" conventional produce and meat, or frozen and canned fruits and vegetables as opposed to fresh, should be seen as an opportunity to educate on the real health benefits of each of those food categories.

Offer creative short cuts. The researchers noted many of the women talked about experimenting with different means of cutting time and effort from the home-cooking process, like make-ahead meals, assembling meals from processed items as opposed to true cooking from scratch, using slow cookers and finding ways to get their children involved in meal prep. All should offer the grocer with his ear to the ground opportunities to present his store as the solutions center.

Give subtle support. One point you can agree with the North Carolina researchers on: A number of sociological issues arise behind the simple focus on family mealtime. Today's quest for authentic food from authentic farmers mirrors a wider need which cultural historians have identified to find roots in a rootless society. Since the 1970s, both academics and the affluent, suburban culture they tend to spring from have taken a wider interest in taste, craft, health, status and authenticity, observes food historian Warren Belasco, an authority on how '60s radicals tried to change the food system. From The Waltons to Joel Salatan, Aunt Jemima to Michael Pollan, the hunger to rediscover authentic "connections between eating and the land" has driven a new generation to distraction looking for validation in their food decisions. Women of all socio-economic classes appear to not be immune to that attraction. If, as the study authors write, "...being poor makes it nearly impossible to enact the foodie version of a home-cooked meal," then the solution should be less about passing up that meal as it is about injecting some reality into the romantized notion of the foodie meal.

Gardeners may feed the world, but not cost-effectively

You likely heard the term coined at the start of this lingering economic downturn: the "recession garden." Like the so-called victory gardens of the 1940s, today's private backyard and shared inner-city vegetable gardens are hailed as the new means to make fruits and vegetables affordable for low-income consumers, improve the health of those who tend and eat of the harvest, and make the American hungry more "food secure."

Does it work?

Not so much, it turns out. A new study published by Oregon State University's state-wide coordinator of gardening volunteers shows that while backyard gardening is a great hobby and a good way to introduce the fruit and vegetable-averse to the benefits of produce, as an economic enterprise, it's a poor second to the commercial system that includes the food retailer.

Author Gail Langellotto conducted an extensive review of the scientific literature to find a total of four journal articles and two blogs reporting 10 different sets of data on costs and yields for 11 vegetable gardens. The original authors in those studies estimated the dollar value of garden yields, based on the cost per pound for each crop at a local grocery store, and then netted out the final value of that produce by tracking the reported material and supply costs for the gardens. Most authors also reported the number of hours worked in the garden and the fair market labor costs associated with these hours. If no labor rate was quoted, Langellotto calculated labor costs using the minimum wage for the year the study was published. After adjusting all those studies' costs and values to current prices in order to make an accurate comparison across all studies, she calculated the difference between yield and cost to estimate the net value of each garden.

Gardens are not profitable if you count labor costs

Her results: Overall, gardens were profitable--but only if the labor to tend them was free. Excluding labor costs, gardens yielded an average $678 worth of fruits and vegetables, over and above the costs of irrigating and buying seeds, starts, soil and other materials. However, when labor costs were included, the net value of home vegetable gardens fell to an average loss of $81 per garden. Those values were also widely variable around the average, varying by $499 to $515.

Naturally, "most people do not hire help to tend their vegetable garden," Langellotto comments. She therefore concludes that her fellow Agriculture Extension professionals can confidently recommend vegetable gardening as a way to save money on fresh fruit and vegetable purchases, "...particularly if household members (rather than hired help) maintain the garden."

However, it's important to temper her recommendation with two points:

  1. Many farmers through history have gone broke using precisely the logic she employs; that is, relying on under-valued family labor as a "free" resource. Your own labor and that of family members may not carry direct costs, but they do come at an "opportunity cost." That is, time spent gardening is free labor when it replaces time spent on the couch, but it's a real cost if it takes away from time that could be devoted to a part-time job.
  2. It's precisely the poor who can benefit from her garden savings who in fact have the least time to spend on growing their own food, this recent study showed. If they have no other occupation opportunities, investing that labor in gardening may be time well spent. But if any wage-paying opportunity is available, the poor would be dollars ahead to take the job and leave the food growing to the professionals.

You’ve seen the headlines:

As Farmer Goes to Market has cautioned before, much of the mainstream media, including the traditional grocery retail trade press, often rely on “willingness to pay” predictions like those to urge grocery retailers to stock such items lest they miss out on increased sales or margin opportunities. Yet they often miss the one important, obvious question: How well does that kind of research predict you can actually depend on shoppers to follow through on that promise?

Says Oklahoma State ag economist Jayson Lusk, who has studied the structure and reliability of willingness to pay studies for more than a decade, “Among the staunchest criticisms…is the fact that people tend to overstate the amount they are willing to pay for improvements in a public good or an increase in quality of a private good.” The research evidence is widespread, he says, for this “hypothetical bias”—the idea that talk is cheap when study subjects don’t actually have to sacrifice anything to get what they say they would hypothetically like to have.

Now, a new study published in the journal Agricultural Economics continues to add evidence that current studies on willingness to pay values do not put enough attention on considering psychological effects when people promise to pay more for such foods--in this case, organic foods. Past studies have predicted the willingness to pay values for organic food range wildly, from a low of around 2 percent to a high of more than 500 percent.

This Agricultural Economics study enrolled 233 college students from an agricultural university in China, where values for organic food run about 130 percent of conventional foods on average in the cities, in order to test whether those students’ willingness to pay could be manipulated by how the test was structured.

The researchers tested two potentially confounding factors. First, they rushed the study subjects to make their decision on how high a premium they would pay for organic pork, tomatoes and milk by giving them varying levels of limited time to complete the questionnaire. Second, they forced them to distraction while asking them the sets of questions regarding their willingness to pay by requiring them to complete simple math problems simultaneously.

The study authors found that although there were no significant differences in the subjects' stated willingness to pay when they were put under time pressure to make a decision, there was strong evidence that willingness to pay can be easily influenced by mental distractions while making a decision. The set of students forced to distraction by the math calculations decreased their willingness to pay by 5.5 percent for organic meat, 6.4 percent for organic tomatoes and 34.1 percent for organic milk.

What’s it mean? Past psychological work has shown people quickly and predictably lose self-control when they face such so-called “cognitive load.” That is, when our brains are overworked, we lose abilty to focus concentration on a single task. When that overload occurs, people typically default from making decisions based on motives shaped by social norms, tangible rewards and rational thought, toward making decisions based on preferences that evolved gradually through early learning and experience. In this case, the researchers theorized that willingness to pay for organic food can be shifted in the same way when consumers are distracted. In China, they write, such "implicit" motives may be particularly powerful because many consumers' underlying "implicit" beliefs about their food evolved at a time when widespread hunger and malnutrition posed a real and constant threat. In contrast, acceptance of organic food, which many researchers have identified as associated with social status and wealth, requires conscious and purposeful decision-making.

At the least, this latest study should remind us that willingness to pay research can be manipulated or biased and that the confounding factors should always be considered when interpreting the results, the authors write. 

Feed vs. food is a false choiceYet again, last week, the public was treated to the perrennial accusation that global agriculture starves people because commodities are "wasted" by being fed to livestock (or ethanol-driven cars) rather than humans. In response to a widely reported study by a New York professor claiming beef production was worse for the environment than any other commodity, University of Leeds professor Tim Benton told London's The Guardian, saving the planet was only one good reason to give up U.S. beef. "Another recent study implies the single biggest intervention to free up calories that could be used to feed people would be not to use grains for beef production in the US,” Benton said.

It's a common perception, say researchers who just authored a report for the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. The belief that commodities grown for livestock subtract from the supply of human food is held by many in the supply chain, from retailers to policymakers to consumers. But in their recently released 16-page issue paper, available here, the team of scientists and economists from several universities review some facts and offer you a bit of science-based information to help consumers decide whether the issue really should inform their meat-purchasing decisions:

• Large areas of land across the globe are either incapable of or not environmentally wise to use in supporting the production of human food commodities. For instance, more than 70 percent of all agricultural land in the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, is better suited for grazing than it is tilling. Terrain, soil type and climate render the majority of that land currently used for grazing unsuitable for cultivation for the production of vegetable-based foods for human consumption. Only animal agriculture, which takes advantage of the forages grown on those lands, can effectively convert the product of those lands into usable food for humans--in the form of meat and milk products.

• The assumption that cutting back on the number of livestock raised in the world will increase the availability of commodities for human food only holds true if the same cereal crops are interchangeable between animal feed and human food. Granted, on a regional basis, this may be true of certain livestock systems. But when you look at the “feed vs. food” competition on a global scale, the CAST researchers say, livestock diets include a considerable quantity of crops and by-products from human food, fiber, and fuel production that are not suitable as human food because they're unsafe, poor quality, undigestible or not culturally acceptable. Those crops are best suited--and sometimes only suited--for being converted into higher quality foods through animals. And in fact, many otherwise valueless by-products from human food and fiber production are in effect recycled through animals, which actually reduces competition between humans and animals for crops. In the long run, that reduced waste maximizes land use efficiency and decreases the environmental impact of food production.

Food or feed? Feeds commonly used in U.S. livestock farming

Feed type


Can humans eat it?

Forage crops

Pasture grasses, alfalfa, clovers, hays, silages (grass or crop based)



Corn, wheat, barley, millet, sorghum, triticale, oats


Plant proteins

Soybean meal and hulls, cottonseed, safflower meal, canola meal, peanut meal

Only partially

Grain byproducts

Distillers grains (wet and dry), corn gluten, wheat bran, straw, crop residues


Vegetable byproducts

Apple pomace, citrus pulp, almond hulls, pea silages



Waste fruits and vegetables

Only partially

Food industry byproducts

Bakery waste, cannery waste, restaurant waste, candy, potato chips

Only partially

Sugar industry byproducts

Molasses (cane, beet, and citrus), beet pulp

Only partially

Animal byproducts

Meat and bone meal, tallow, feather meal, bloodmeal, poultry litter

Only partially

Dairy byproducts

Milk, whey products, casein

Only partially

Seafood byproducts

Fish and seafood meal and oils, algae

Only partially


Vitamins, minerals, probiotics, antibiotics, yeasts, flavors, enzymes, preservatives

Only partially

• Livestock production is an important component in the economies and society of both developed and developing countries. In the developing world, animals often serve as an important means of accumulating portable and convertable capital. And in some areas of the world, livestock continues to serve as a considerable source of draft power within smallholder operations which make up the majority of global food production.

All foods have an environmental cost, the report notes, whether of plant or animal origin. Does animal agriculture use resources and have a measurable environmental footprint? Yes. But at the same time, the benefits accrued to society by livestock worldwide are substantial in terms of economic and efficient nutrition and in terms of wealth and cultural standing. Modern agriculture continues to improve the environmental footprint and economic cost of animal production through improved productivity, by using high-tech animal nutrition, genetics and management. Consumers need help to understand the issue is not as black-and-white as groups like PETA make it out to be, the authors say.

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