Farmers markets and other farm-to-consumer outlets continue to be the fashion for food distribution, growing in volume by 60 percent in the last decade, USDA estimates. But despite that rapid growth, several practical barriers have kept many consumers away from shopping at direct food outlets. One of the most often cited: Lack of access.
Questioning whether accessibility really affects consumers’ participation in this food-marketing channel, a pair of economists from Virginia Polytechnic and Florida, writing in an upcoming article for the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, modeled the results of a mailed survey of nearly 1,600 local-food shoppers, to test the theory that more farmers markets, U-picks and roadside stands within an area equals more sales through those channels. Their results, along with some inferred results grocers can use when competing with this segment, include:
Natural fare continues to be the rage, we all hear:
But business is far from rosy in the natural aisle. The Consumer Reports survey, released in late January, only underscores what news trends are beginning to demonstrate: Consumers are often surprised to find the natural label is meaningless. Nearly half of the Consumer Reports respondents say they believe the label claim is verified from some oversight agency. (It isn't.) Meanwhile, they continue to express a desire for some health or environmental benefit from natural—whether that’s supporting local farmers to reducing pesticide contamination to decreasing reliance on GMOs to improving animal welfare. Compared to a similar 2014 survey, the percentage of consumers who say any of those objectives is “very important” has notably increased. Yet, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration applies no formal definition to the term, which means no law governs whether or how "natural" must apply any of those traits to the product. No small surprise, then: A recent poll by the Retail Dietitians Business Alliance, the professional association for more than 400 U.S. retail dieticians, found fully 89 percent of retail dietitians think consumers are misled by food claims at least half the time.
In response, organizations including Consumer Reports as well as the Grocery Manufacturers Association, have been urging FDA to define the term, a move one recent survey shows 83 percent of surveyed consumers and nearly two-thirds of food marketers would favor. The agency has responded by asking for public comment on how it would like the word to be defined. Meanwhile, USDA has just announced in mid-January it will no longer continue the use of labels for grass-fed and naturally raised livestock--both terms fraught with confusion and hazy definition. USDA officials say its move is not because the labels aren't accurate, but because they now believe the agency never had legal authority to enforce them in the first place.
But you can't help but wonder how effective that legal definition would be in truly satisfying food shoppers. USDA created its certified organic program for precisely that purpose--to standardize and specify the practice claims most people believe would contribute to a more natural process. Yet while more than half of consumers in a 2013 survey indicate that natural claims for food are important or very important for them, only 35 percent feel organic claims are personally important. A poll from 2009 found 31 percent of consumers believed "100 percent natural" was best label claim to signify environmental friendly products, but only 14 percent chose “organic,” an existing, officially blessed label term that's supposed to signify precisely that.
Consumers facing those kinds of paradoxes are bound to be disappointed. In more and more cases, they are expressing that disappointment in the form of lawsuits.
Whole Foods Market has just been named in a second class-action suit claiming some of its all-natural products are misbranded because they contain artificial ingredients and flavorings, artificial coloring and preservatives. Celebrity Jessica Alba's Honest line of health products, which promises to be "honestly free" of dangerous chemicals, has similarly just been served with a $5 million lawsuit, claiming the company isn't honest in throwing that term around.
This “current surge” of natural-food class-action lawsuits has a decade-long history, according to Babson College Professor of Marketing Law Ross Petty, dating back first to the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s threats to sue several natural-food makers over the presence of genetically modified crops in them, followed by 2004’s “sugar wars,” in which the Sugar Association and the marketer of Equal each sued the marketers of Splenda sucralose sweetener misrepresenting Splenda as natural. Settled in 2008, they led to the filing of more than a dozen similar class actions throughout the country, Petty writes in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing.
Petty and others tracked natural-food class-actions brought in recent years, showing a spike in 2011 and 2012 with 49 and 85 case filings. Many have been dismissed without a trial, and others have at least partially survived a motion to dismiss, which often leads to a settlement. Settlements typically are kept confidential, but the few that have been announced for natural food claims range between $4 and $9 million set aside for consumer refunds and attorneys’ fees of approximately $1 million per settlement. Whether the drop Petty identified in 2013 is temporary or permanent remains to be seen, he writes.
The idea of “food deserts," low-income pockets with limited access to healthy foods that USDA says millions of Americans now live within, has an intuitive attraction, says University of Arkansas ag economist Di Zeng. With a supermarket difficult to get to in those areas, residents presumably obtain and consume more energy-dense, unhealthy foods from convenience stores and fast food restaurants, resulting in poorer diet quality and more obesity. It's a narrative that's become conventional wisdom in the new food movement.
The one hole in this appealing story, Zeng will tell the annual meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association in January in San Francisco, is that the numbers simply don't support it.
Zeng's latest work helps disentangle all the "confounding mechanisms" that are over-simplified by the food deserts narrative. He reports that the widely held theory in the scientific literature that longer distance and thus more difficult access to the supermarket leads to obesity in nearby citizens is not generally true when individual preferences and travel costs are considered. This reality helps explain, at least in part, why researchers who actually measure the association between the food environment and obesity levels have found only mixed and contradictory results.
To really get at the question of food deserts, he writes, it is necessary to consider the particulars of individual cases which the food-desert generalization averages, including special food environments, extreme preferences, random supermarket travel, and income changes. For example, he points out:
Such "heterogeneities," or variability in how real people behave in theoretical settings, generally don't get considered in existing studies given data limitations. Important features are also missing on the supply side. For instance, supermarkets generally provide foods, including unhealthy foods, at lower prices than the alternative retail outlets, which could inadvertently increase food consumption and therefore result in weight gain.
Neither limited supermarket access nor low income has any clearly established effect on weight, Zeng concludes. Until the conflicting forces he identifies are formally analyzed, the concept of food deserts does little to guide policy-makers in preventing increasing obesity rates.
"Is it a stretch," historian Dan-el Padilla Peralta asked a lecture the last week of October before the Department of English at University of Nebraska, "to compare today's immigrants with Roman slaves?" The Princeton- and Oxford-trained classical historian, himself a child of undocumented immigrants in this country, lays out an interesting case that a globalized economy that contributes to a necessity to emmigrate may owe something to its immigrants. However, his rhetoric comparing today's U.S. immigrants to Roman slaves as "bound to farms with little to no prospect of relief" betrays the prejudices of many against today's large farms. Factory farms, writes Huffington Post "traveling research scholar" Lucas Spangher, for example, are rampant with poor pay, long hours, harassment, abuse and a frightening pace so strict workers take their bathroom breaks in their pants rather than risk blame for slowing down production.
It's a common meme among advocates, popular food writers and documentaries, writes University of Colorado at Boulder sociologist Jill Lindsey Harrison in the December issue of the journal Agriculture and Human Values: Contrasting the honorable labor of ‘‘family farms’’ with the exploited labor of ‘‘factory farms," or criticizing only the labor relations on large-scale farms while giving small ones a pass.
There's only one problem with that contention, Harrison writes: Nobody's ever really done the heavy academic lifting of actually studying the relationship between farm size and job quality for hired workers. So, she and fellow researcher Christy Getz did it, using two independently conducted, mixed-methods case studies—one on 300 organic fruit and vegetable farms in California and the other on 83 Wisconsin dairy farms of different sizes.
Their results showed that despite the differences between these two commodity sectors, large farms in both cases fared better than or no worse than smaller farms for most job quality metrics studied, with only a few exceptions.
Pay and benefits. Although the small California farms reported higher average entry-level wages, differences in top wages were negligible. For the Wisconsin dairies, entry-level hourly wages were highest on large dairy farms and lowest on medium-size farms, although the differences were not statistically significant. In both states, the larger farms were more likely to report offering nonwage benefits, including health insurance, paid time off and a paid retirement plan. It was also the larger farms in the California study that were more likely to report using formal systems to supervise and manage workers, including an employee manual, discipline and termination practices, formal grievance procedures, formal job descriptions, employment contracts and policies in Spanish. Additionally, large farms were significantly more likely than small farms to report they provide supervisors with specific guidelines or training to ensure formal respect of farmworkers. In contrast, the smaller growers tended to be more ad hoc in their worker management, depending on one-on-one contact and working side-by-side with employees.
Opportunity to advance. In the Wisconsin dairy study, farm size appeared to make no impact on the ‘‘intrinsically’’ rewarding nature of entry-level jobs on dairy farms—in other words, how well entry-level jobs keep workers interested and permit them autonomy and creativity. Big or small, farmworkers equally recognize that milking is boring, dirty and strenuous. However, the study found that workers’ opportunities to get promoted out of that low-level work increases as farms get larger. The data show small dairies, in contrast, tend to hire labor only for the tough job of milking, because the better non-milking jobs go to dairy owners and their families—who also, by nature of the business' demography, tend to be white, U.S.-born.
For their part, the smaller California growers did tend to be more likely than the large farms to claim to use more efforts to protect the safety and health of their workers by limiting handweeding or stoop labor, as well as to a set number of hours each day and pay by the hour to avoid speed-related accidents associated with piece work.
Nebraska now ranks as the 20th most obese state in the country, according to a new study from the Trust for America’s Health, up three places from its 23rd spot on last year’s report. The current adult obesity rate in our state stands at nearly one in three people.
Were that news not bad enough, the other shoe has just been dropped in a study conducted by a group of physicians from Kings College of London and published in the September issue of the American Journal of Public Health. The researchers studied a sample of obese medical patients aged 20 years and older from a 10-year period in the United Kingdom’s Clinical Practice Research Datalink, the nationalized health records system that includes nearly 7 percent of all citizens. The study analyzed about 78,000 men and almost 100,000 women, out of a total record set of nearly 279,000 records, who were identified as obese to some degree. The researchers followed their progress for nine years, and they excluded those patients who had gastric bypass surgery.
The British researchers found that for a "simply" obese person--that is, someone with a body mass index between 30 and 35--the probability of getting back to a normal weight was just 1 in 210 for men and 1 in 124 for women. For the morbidly obese--those with a BMI between 40 and 45, the chances of ever returning to normal weight was just one in 1290 for men and one in 677 for women. The annual probability of losing just 5 percent of bodyweight for the morbidly obese was one in eight for men and one in seven for women.
For those who did lose 5 percent of body weight, just over half had gained the weight back and more by two years later; by five years later, nearly eight in 10 had. The British researchers note that kind of weight cycling has been linked to a higher risk of sickness and death than stable obesity.