Search Farmer Goes to Market

Search Site
Saturday March 24, 2018

Buy local food? Why?

"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:

  • In "Food miles, local eating, and community supported agriculture: putting local food in its place," Pennsylvania's Kutztown University scholar Steven Schnell argues that focusing on food miles cheapens and causes us to miss what's really important about why citizens seem to yearn for local food. "The dialogue over food miles...," he says, "has largely centered not on complex reality, but on a caricature, and a single variable stripped of its context." Local eating is not really about mileage, Schnell believes; it's about connecting people to a community. Trying to assign an ideal number of miles oversimplifies a complex process in which shoppers are trying to connect with  particular producers, particular markets, particular environments and particular people. Food, he believes, is simply one part of that "narrative" they tell themselves about where they fit in the world.
  • In "CSA membership and psychological needs fulfillment: an application of self-determination theory" a group of University of Wisconsin ecologists examine the pyschological needs driving why consumers join Community Supported Agriculture buying programs, subscription-based direct-buying programs that connect local shoppers with local farms. Through interviews with those buying members about why they join and leave CSAs, they suggest those local-buying programs meet shoppers' needs to feel independent and in control of their own lives, capable and competent in providing for themselves, and related to people and communities surrounding them. Although the Wisconsin researchers concede they have only scratched the surface of the deep psychology behind local food buying, they suggest the field is ripe for further research, including if, why and how shoppers better meet those psychological needs by shopping at a farmers market vs. at a supermarket.
  • In the article "Beyond agriculture: the counter-hegemony of community farming," British social scientists approach the motivations of local food buying by considering it as a new form of liesure activity, in which shoppers are at heart attempting to exert some rebellion against authority by participating, vicariously though it may be, in growing their own food. Sort of like an avid golfer who eventually turns a sport into work in order to set himself apart by excelling at something others cannot do, local-food advocates who are so involved they go so far as to volunteer their time to help plant and harvest at local community-supported farms are similarly disguising a non-essential liesure activity as hard work that sets them apart from the power anonymousing forces of modern society. By participating in local farming, they are "busy constructing meaningful lives outside of conventional work and leisure activities that bear all the hallmarks of a big leisure project, although it is no longer understood (or performed) in these terms," they write. "...the majority of the participants in the CSA did not routinely view their activities and deployment of time as leisure per se. Rather, they viewed their participation as a part of their wider lives, part of their personal project...[that] speaks to others about who we are, what we hold to be valuable and how we can make a difference.’’

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.

A food-safety reality check

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:

Perception: Modern food is poisoning us.

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.

Perception: Confined animal feeding operations are bad.

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:

  • Selective, controlled and planned breeding that made the ability to use the best genetics to improve productivity and change traits to give consumers what they wanted, even while driving average costs down.
  • Greater production, and all the attending benefits, from taking animals out of  inclement weather and hot/cold extremes.
  • Indoor feeding and growing facilities to limit exposure to vermin, parasites and disease-carrying wild animals and birds. (Think “bird flu.”)
  • Hog maternity pens that protect naturally submissive mother pigs from naturally dominant mother pigs, ensuring adequate access to feed and water.
  • Better transportation systems, resulting in less stress for animals and promoting more humane handling.

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:

  • The risk today of catching trichinosis by eating undercooked pork—the perennial disease caused by exposure to wild animals and garbage feeding of eras past that has been eliminated by indoor housing--is history.
  • Children no longer die and people are no longer sickened by common diseases spread by milk, like brucellosis and tuberculosis.
  • Studies show Salmonella is less common in conventionally produced chicken than free-range chicken. The rate of Salmonella infection in the conventional poultry chain, as evidenced by USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service testing on young chickens, was 2.7 percent last quarter, down from 16 percent in 2005.
  • Illness from E coli O157:H7 foodborne illness are down nearly 50 percent and at an all-time low in 2010.

Perception: We do not give antibiotics to healthy people to help prevent them from catching disease; we shouldn’t do the same with farm animals.

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

  • Preventively administering penicillin to hundreds of college dormitory residents living nearby a single student diagnosed with bacterial meningitis.
  • Giving an antibiotic before dental work to a patient who has an artificial heart valve, in order to protect against the possibility of germs entering the bloodstream and infecting the heart.

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.

Perception: Up to 80 percent of antibiotics sold in this country are wasted on healthy farm animals.

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.

Perception: “Superbugs” spread by food are threatening to return us to a “pre-antibiotics” age.

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.

With today's "health conscious," "local oriented" and "highly educated" shopper, producing, cooking, selling and serving "good food" is not just added value, it's a necessity, correct? "Everyone has an “inner locavore” you can tap into for 2013," gushes one Midwestern on-line green-grocer guide, " can’t go wrong if you increase your support of local and artisanal, it is a good thing!!!"

Maybe. But these three examples demonstrate the dangerous ground that can be created when retailers try to redefine "good food," particularly when they do so by proclaiming them better and more wholesome because they don't contain some traditional elements of the bigger food chain. It's a learning experience for "absence labeling," and the caution it should warrant for any retailer participating in it:

Chipotle recants on antibiotics

So sorry for feeding you antibiotics?

Chipotle restaurants, following nearly a decade of touting its "no anbitiotics" pledge, floated a trial balloon last week announcing it could start buying beef that came from cattle treated for a disease using antibiotics.

Citing an inability to source a reliable supply of beef that meets its no-antibiotics policy, the chain said it was reviewing its commitment to only selling beef that had "never-ever" been given an antibiotic. Instead, it may now allow beef suppliers to treat an animal "when necessary."

Despite openly marketing its products as antibiotic-free, Chipotle has always hedged its commitment in the fine print, saying its "Food With Integrity" and "Responsibly Raised" campaigns mean the company avoids antibiotics or added hormones "whenever possible."

But such on-again/off-again commitment to a marketing claim based on food safety uncovers the catch-22 nature of this kind of absence labeling: If it’s not OK to feed what you've clearly identified as a potentially hazardous ingredient to your customers when you can afford to pay a higher price to avoid it, why is it suddenly OK to feed it to them when you can’t?

Panera says farm antibiotics for the lazy?

Panera calling farmers lazy?

Panera Bread Co. raised the social-media backlash of some farm advocates earlier this month when one popular blogger discovered the heart of the company's new "antibiotic-free" chicken campaign featuring a chicken shaped like an antibiotic capsule. Dairy farmer turned blogger Dairy Carrie wrote of the campaign's promotional materials:

It doesn’t take a genius to understand what you’re really saying here. I mean surely Panera Bread Company’s new campaign isn’t actually calling farmers and ranchers lazy?

Who in the world would approve this message? This idea sounds more like one of those interns who gets pissed off and tries to take down a company via twitter. I mean really, who in the world would approve a marketing campaign that insults the very people that provide every scrap of ingredient that makes your product?

But wait you say, Panera isn’t calling all farmers and ranchers lazy! They are just calling the ones that use antibiotics lazy! I used antibiotics to help a sick calf get better last week, my friends the organic farmers had a cow with pneumonia and they gave that cow antibiotics to make her better. They had to sell her, but she lived. Does that mean we are lazy? Is it lazy to take care of our sick animals?

Panera quickly reacted to her post and the accompanying #pluckEZchicken Twitter campaign, promising to remove the offending images from the campaign. Social media response to her campaign was strong and vocal. Dairy Carrie pledged to keep pushing until the entire no-antibiotics campaign was gone.

"When I said it was time to #PluckEZChicken I didn’t just mean to ax the bird. I want to see this kind of fear driven marketing stopped dead, starting with Panera," she said.

Hyatt Regency: The White Table-clothed Chipotle?

Chipotle's message, just dressed better?

Hyatt Regency earned the description as the "white tablecloth Chipotle" when its Food Thoughtfully Raised marketing campaign was criticized by the online publication Food Thoughtfully Raised promotes Hyatt's in-house restaurants' use of "hormone-free" milk, "cage-free" eggs, sustainably raised farm products and others. Truth in Food author Kevin Murphy took the hotel chain to task for casting doubt on the safety and wholesomeness of food derived from the traditional food chain.

"I voiced my criticism of the Hyatt’s Food Thoughtfully Sourced campaign," he writes, "arguing that, like Chipotle’s Food with Integrity, it created a false dichotomy dividing our food system in two, with one side being the pristine, natural and organic side and the other technological, conventional and ultimately evil. I reminded [Hyatt VP of Food and Beverage Susan] Santiago of the positive impact “conventional” agriculture has on She agreed and sought to assure me Food Thoughtfully Sourced was not meant to pick sides in today’s food battles but simply reflect customer demand."

Santiago's response, related in a follow up story here, was less than conciliatory. "Your readers’ comments were duly read," she said. "...however I must decline the opportunity for further interviews.  We are passionate about our F&B philosophy. We are constantly listening to our guests, and responding to their dining needs and wants through the many options we make available at our hotels."

Those comments, which you can read here, were almost universally critical of the honesty and credibility of Hyatt's marketing campaign.

"Please stop the current state of your food marketing, Hyatt," one farmer pleaded. "The food you serve is from animals who are treated no better than animals in other systems. Sensational news stories can lead us to believe that there are a set of good farms and a set of bad farms, but in fact the vast majority of farms are great families working to produce healthy food in a humane manner."

"'Food Thoughtfully Sourced' is a slap in the face to every farmer in America, and an insult to the intelligence of Americans in general.... Farmers don't tell Hyatt how to run their hotels. Why should Hyatt tell farmers how to run their farms?" asked Mischa Popoff, author of Is It Organic?

So far, Hyatt has clung steadfastly to its campaign, despite the flood of comments and an online petition urging them to Thoughtfully Reconsider, which you can find here.

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:

  • In urban areas, the team found farmers’ markets are often located close to grocery stores, especially in larger urban areas like Seattle, where roughly half of the 57 farmers markets lie within two-thirds mile of a grocery store, with many others not much farther away than that. They point to other research showing farmers markets say they pick a location for much the same reason other retailers do: because it draws shoppers. When competing for both shoppers and farmer-suppliers, Sage noted, potential gains in food access for the poor farmers markets bring are often at risk by the same economic realities supermarkets face. " should be of little surprise that we see so many of these markets locating close to established grocers, which are generally in areas of more retail activity," they said.
  • Of the 1,004 census tracts in the state, 64 were identified as an urban food desert, because it lacked the presence of a supermarket without a "reasonable" walking distance. However, of those tracts, fully 92 percent were no more than two-thirds of a mile from a retail food outlet that wasn't a grocery store--typically a convenience store. Surprisingly, when they accounted for poverty level, the average distance a shopper would have to travel to a food source--whether supermarket, convenience store or farmers market--actually went down, not up. In other words, people in poor urban areas are actually closer to food sources than those in more affluent areas.
  • Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program dollars do appear to play an important role in farmers market usage in food deserts. Farmers markets within food deserts had at least triple the dollar amount of low-income senior and WIC vouchers redeemed compared to markets outside food deserts--regardless of the size of the market. Ten of the 15 markets found in urban food deserts were accepting WIC and Senior Food Vouchers, and collected them at "rather impressive levels," the study team found. Their results imply public support dollars may be a necessary lure to bring the poor to farmers markets.
  • "Nearly a quarter of high-poverty residents of food deserts can be considered to have high access to a healthy food source," the study noted, but it's not necessarily because a farmers market exists in place of an absent grocery store. It's because a farmers market exists in conjunction with a grocery within a managable distance.

As shoppers race toward health consciousness and healthier food choices, writes University of Nevada’s Patricia Alpert, fancy packaging and the utilization of  buzz words—like organic, multigrain and zero trans fats--may lead them astray. Writing in February’s issue of the academic journal Home Health Care Management & Practice, the doctor of nutrition and head of the university's physiology department cautions against 7 food categories that have become "imposter" foods. These formerly healthy foods have now been hijacked by other ingredients that may increase their fat, sodium, sugar and empty calorie content to the point they may disappoint and even shock those health-conscious eaters should they discover the truth. Here are Alpert’s top imposter health foods to be wary of:

YogurtYogurt. Although a rich source of calcium and vitamin D (if fortified), often low in fat, and containing bacteria that help digestion, a closer look at the ingredients may show a large amount of processed ingredients and sugar, especially for the yogurts with the fruit on the bottom. Some contain as much as 26 grams to 8 teaspoons of sugar per serving, which can deactivate those friendly bacterial cultures. Worse yet, if yogurt is sold as a parfait with granola and fruit, the fat and sugar content increases phenomenally, Alpert warns. Some carry up to 45 grams of sugar. Frozen yogurt may be dosing shoppers with as much as 20 grams of sugar for every half cup consumed. Many also contain hydrogenated oils such as palm, soybean or cottonseed oils.

GranolaGranola cereal. When granola debuted in the ‘60s, Alpert writes, it was in fact a healthier choice than other, heavily sugared cereals that lined shelves at the time. But by today’s standards, the fat and calorie count actually makes granola a poor breakfast choice. Just a quarter cup can add 130 calories, a high-fat, high-calorie count that comes from added oils that may include saturated coconut oil, nuts and added sugar. Supplement it with the typical dried-fruit addition and you’ve added even more sugar and calories, she warns. Her caution applies to granola and cereal bars, too. Many contain saturated fats, sodium as a preservative, high sugar and artificial flavoring—without even adding the perceived benefit of adequate fiber. “Many of these bars contain such a small amount of granola that it should be considered a candy bar,” she notes.

Protein barsProtein bars. Here’s another bar which time-strapped shoppers increasingly reach for as a lunch alternative that may be a health imposter. Protein bars are not all created equal--many have between 300 and 400 calories per bar and may contain more protein than necessary, especially if shoppers eat more than one bar at a time.

SushiSushi. This traditional Japanese food benefits from the category’s aura of healthy, low-fat, high omega-oil content of dark fish. However, sushi has now been so successfully “Americanized,” Alpert says, that the healthy typical tuna or salmon California roll and bowl of miso soup is now often complemented with a large serving of rice, seaweed, tempura battering, mayonnaise or cream cheese, avocado, sauces and fried shrimp. Suddenly then, the formerly 35-calorie dish transforms into a 320-calorie roll with as much as 17 grams of fat. Add the high sodium content in soy sauce and you have a health-imposter disaster in the making.

Dried fruitDried fruit. A half cup of dried fruit provides a daily serving of fruit and makes a great snack—high in fiber, providing many necessary vitamins and minerals, convenient to pack, not constrained by need to refrigerate, and even providing a bit of sweetness to cooked cereals or trail mix. But when manufacturers add sugar to the dried fruit—especially cherries and cranberries in order to counter the tartness—those added sugars can increase the calorie count of dried fruit by as much as 50 additional calories. The difficulty in decoding dried fruit labels comes, Alpert says, because manufacturers don’t have to disclose how much added sugar has been used to increase the fruit’s natural sugar. Corn or fructose-corn syrup, juice concentrates, malt sugars, dextrose, sucrose, maltose and lactose tend to hide the sugar content in plain sight for consumers who can’t decode the meaning of those terms. Add a yogurt-covering, and you’ve only heaped on the sugar without adding any of the healthy components of yogurt found in containers.

WrapsWraps. Lunchtime shoppers have been successfully conditioned to select the wrap over a traditional sandwich as the healthier choice, believing them a substitute for the two slices of bread that aren’t good for you. But, the white flour and hydrogenated oils actually make a 10-inch wrap equivalent to adding an additional slice of bread to a traditional two-slice sandwich. And spinach tortilla wraps? They may sound healthier in theory, but they’re typically really made from white flour wraps mixed with a combination of blue and yellow dye and only a sprinkle of spinach powder. Adding a prepared vegetarian or chicken patty to replace the old-fashioned red-meat sandwich? Not so fast, she warns: Many vegetarian meat substitutes are highly processed, high-additive and high-sodium.

Fruit smoothiesSmoothies. It’s not clear when fruit smoothies became associated with health, Alpert writes, but today’s commercially sold smoothies are typically pure sugar, no-fiber, no-protein drinks served in oversized cups disguised as healthful bevarages. They typically contain a small portion of healthy fruit ingredients, overwhelmed by empty calories and supersized until they contain anywhere from 95 to 125 grams of sugar—somewhere in the neighborhood of a candy bar containing 750 to 1,000 calories.

Photo credits:
Yogurt: Flickr/Lynda Gliddens
Granola: Flickr/Stef Noble
Protein bars:Flickr/TheImpulseBuy
Sushi: Flickr/Paul Mayne
Dried fruit: Flickr/Kristof Abrath
Smoothies:Flickr/Rusty T. Anton

S5 Box